United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge
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). 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.
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).
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).
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
orstanding 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.
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).
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).
Standard of Review
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.
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.
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. ...