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Schmierer v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

November 4, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff, 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.


         Plaintiff 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 judicial review.

         In 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).)


         Federal 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.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts 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).

         “Substantial 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 omitted).

         “In 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).

         When 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)).[2] “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).

         This 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).[3] 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).

         On the 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.[4] 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.[5]

         B. Assignments of Error

         Plaintiff argues that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding of no disability on these grounds:

         1) “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 omitted));

         2) “[p]roper weight was not assigned to the evidence presented in this case” (id.); and

         3) “[e]vidence presented does not substantiate conclusions of the ALJ” (id. at 3).

         Defendant contends otherwise and seeks affirmance of the ALJ's ...

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