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Holcombe v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

November 11, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 7] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8].


         The Plaintiff, Jonathan Mark Holcombe (“Plaintiff”), filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), alleging an onset date of February 15, 2015. [Transcript (“T.”) at 163]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [T. at 81, 96]. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on July 17, 2017 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. at 34-67]. On January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date of February 15, 2015. [T. at 18-29]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on December 18, 2018, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. at 1-4]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).


         A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration Regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the claimant's ability to perform work-related functions. SSR 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.

         At step four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id. Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step.


         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date, February 15, 2015. [T. at 20]. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has severe impairments, including: history of traumatic brain injury (“TBI”), cognitive disorder with memory impairments, anxiety, depression, trigeminal neuralgia, obstructive sleep apnea (“OSA”), and obesity. [Id.]. At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the Listings. [T. at 24]. The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff, notwithstanding her impairments, has the RFC:

[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he can never climb ladders. He can never be exposed to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. He can occasionally be exposed to extreme heat. He can perform simple, routine tasks and instructions. He can have occasional contact with the public. He can concentrate on, focus and attend to work activities for at least two hours at a time before needing a normal break of 15 minutes or once per day a 30-minute meal break. He cannot participate in fast-paced production work, and he can have only occasional changes in the workplace and/or work methods.

[T. at 25].

         At step four, the ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as a police officer and magistrate. [T. at 28]. The ALJ observed, however, that the Plaintiff is “unable to perform any past relevant work.” [Id.]. At step five, based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including: storage facility rental clerk, mail clerk (non-post office), and checker I. [T. at 28-29]. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined by the Social Security Act from February 15, 2015, the alleged onset date, through January 18, 2018, the date of the ALJ's decision. [T. at 29].

         V. DISCUSSION[1]

         In this appeal, the Plaintiff sets out two assignments of error.[2] [Doc. 7-1 at 3]. Specifically, the Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly discuss and evaluate the evidence of record related to the Plaintiff's mental limitations, and that the ALJ failed to explain how she reconciled certain contradictory evidence with the mental limitations found in the Plaintiff's RFC. [See Doc. 7-1 at 3-16]. This incomplete analysis, the Plaintiff contends, led to an incomplete or inaccurate assessment of his abilities, which in turn resulted in an unsubstantiated RFC. [Id.]. Consequently, the Plaintiff argues, that the ALJ's hypothetical ...

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