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Nalley v. Saul

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

December 4, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for supplemental security income under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1] For the reasons which follow, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED, Defendant's motion is DENIED, and the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED AND REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI benefits on January 26, 2015, alleging a disability which began on April 6, 2013. (Tr. 17). Plaintiff's application was denied on June 15, 2015 and denied upon reconsideration on October 30, 2015. (Tr. 17). Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was ultimately held on August 17, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Tr. 17). After the hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated January 5, 2018. (Tr. 14).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of disability claims under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). (Tr. 17-19); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At the first step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the filing of his application on January 26, 2015. (Tr. 19). At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has several “severe impairments, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). (Tr. 19-20); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c) (“You must have a severe impairment. If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled.”). Among Plaintiff's severe limitations, the ALJ found that lumbar spine degenerative disk disease, neuropathy, diabetes, and pain in Plaintiff's legs and feet significantly limited his “ability to perform basic work activities as required by SSR 85-28.” (Tr. 19). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any listed impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (hereinafter “The Listings”). (Tr. 20).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff could “perform light exertional work” despite his impairments. (Tr. 20). In his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) analysis, however, the ALJ added the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] must be able to change positions after walking or[]standing for 30 minutes to sitting for 10 minutes while remaining on task throughout the workday; and can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can also frequently kneel and crouch but only occasionally stoop and never crawl. Finally, he can have no exposure to unprotected heights or to moving mechanical parts or workplace hazards.

         (Tr. 20-21). At step four, and with these limitations in mind, the ALJ observed that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 24). At the fifth and final step, and in light of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, ” including Assembler Small Products I, Spray Paint Inspector, and Inspector and Hand Packager. (Tr. 25-26). Accordingly, the ALJ decided Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 26).

         After receiving the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on August 22, 2018. (Tr. 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff brought the suit before the Court to challenge the Commissioner's decision, and this case is now ripe for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard of Review

         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits: “[t]he court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When examining a 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. Id.; Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

         “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) (alteration and quotations omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” courts defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212, 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Pursuant to this five-step process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015)); 20 C.F.R. ...

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