United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
JAMES R. SCHMIERER, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
James R. Schmierer, brought this action pro se pursuant to
the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain
judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the
Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's
claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
(Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified
administrative record (Docket Entry 14 (cited herein as
“Tr.__”)), and both parties have moved for
judgment (Docket Entries 16, 23; see also Docket Entry 24
(Defendant's Memorandum), Docket Entry 26
(Plaintiff's Reply)). For the reasons that follow, the
Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of April 1,
2011. (Tr. 238-39.) Upon denial of that application initially
(Tr. 84-103, 126-29) and on reconsideration (Tr. 104-25,
134-41), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 142-43,
309). Plaintiff and his attorney attended the hearing (Tr.
40-82), after which the ALJ received the vocational
expert's (“VE's”) written responses to
interrogatories from the ALJ and Plaintiff's counsel (Tr.
355-80). The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not
qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 16-32). The Appeals
Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review
(Tr. 1-5, 15, 217-18), thereby making the ALJ's ruling
the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of
rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. [Plaintiff] last met the insured status requirements of
the . . . Act on December 31, 2016.
2. [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity
during the period from his alleged onset date of April 1,
2011 through his date last insured of December 31, 2016.
3. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
following severe impairments: osteoarthritis in the bilateral
knees; lumbar degenerative disc disease; insomnia;
post-traumatic stress disorder; and adjustment disorder with
depression and anxiety.
. . .
4. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
. . .
5. . . . [T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . with
the following limitations: he was incapable of climbing
ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and was incapable of kneeling,
crouching, and crawling, but he was otherwise capable of
occasional postural activities; he was incapable of operating
a motor vehicle for work; he was capable of occasionally
operating foot controls bilaterally; he was to avoid all
exposure to hazards, including unprotected heights and moving
mechanical parts; he was incapable of traveling for work; he
was capable of working in an environment with no more than a
moderate noise level as defined by the Selected
Characteristics of Occupations (SCO); he was able to
understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and
perform work that had no strict time or high quota demands
and was in a routine work setting that had only occasional
changes in the work routine; he was capable of no more than
occasional, brief, non-team interaction with co-workers and
supervisors and occasional, brief interaction with the
general public; and would have been off-task up to 10% of the
workday due to an inability to maintain concentration.
. . .
6. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to
perform any past relevant work.
. . .
10. Through the date last insured, considering
[Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and
residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in
significant No. in the national economy that [Plaintiff]
could have performed.
. . .
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the
. . . Act, at any time from April 1, 2011, the alleged onset
date, through December 31, 2016, the date last insured.
(Tr. 21-32 (internal parenthetical citations omitted).)
law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.”
Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir.
2006). However, “the scope of . . . review of [such a]
decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v.
Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Plaintiff has
not established entitlement to relief under the extremely
limited review standard.
Standard of Review
are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.”
Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir.
1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the
factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of
benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and
were reached through application of the correct legal
standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal
brackets and quotation marks omitted).
evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d
31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists
of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat
less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel,
270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal brackets and
quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to
justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a
jury, then there is substantial evidence.”
Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks
reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Social Security Commissioner].”
Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and
quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence
allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the
[Social Security Commissioner] (or the ALJ).”
Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted).
“The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not
whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's
finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by
substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct
application of the relevant law.” Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context,
“disability” means the “‘inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
12 months, '” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration
[(‘SSA')] has . . . promulgated . . . detailed
regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational
evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's
age, education, and work experience in addition to [the
claimant's] medical condition.” Id.
“These regulations establish a ‘sequential
evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is
disabled.” Id. (internal citations omitted).
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e., currently
working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment
that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of
specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the
extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at
any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends
the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines
whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful
activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are
denied. The second step determines if the claimant is
‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are
denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157,
159 (4th Cir. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each
of the first three steps, “the claimant is
disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177.
Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but
falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's
impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a
listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's
residual functional capacity (‘RFC').”
Id. at 179. Step four then requires the ALJ to
assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can
“perform past relevant work”; if so, the claimant
does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80.
However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return
to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step,
whereupon the ALJ must decide “whether the claimant is
able to perform other work considering both [the RFC] and
[the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education,
and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.”
Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the
government cannot carry its “evidentiary burden of
proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs
available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as
disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.
Assignments of Error
argues that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding
of no disability on these grounds:
“Plaintiff's conditions, including but not limited
to [o]steoarthritis, [post-traumatic stress disorder
(‘PTSD')], [g]eneralized [a]nxiety [d]isorder
[(‘GAD')], [u]nspecified [d]epressive [d]isorder
and ongoing symptoms of chronic pain, agitation, depressed
mood, sleep disturbance/nightmares, hypervigilance and
flashbacks of traumatic events, all of which are supported by
the medical evidence, have resulted in marked to extreme
limitation that prohibits him from maintaining gainful
activity” (Docket Entry 16 at 2 (internal citation
“[p]roper weight was not assigned to the evidence
presented in this case” (id.); and
“[e]vidence presented does not substantiate conclusions
of the ALJ” (id. at 3).
contends otherwise and seeks affirmance of the ALJ's