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Smart v. Berryhill

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

December 30, 2019

JEREMY DUSTIN SMART, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr., United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 13). The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Jeremy Dustin Smart (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of his social security claim. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance under Title II and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on July 17, 2014. (Doc. Nos. 10 to 10-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 237.) His applications were denied first on January 7, 2015, (Tr. 123, 140), and upon reconsideration on April 10, 2015, (Tr. 157, 171). Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing on May 11, 2015, (Tr. 196), and an administrative hearing was held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on April 4, 2017, (Tr. 199). Following this hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 31-49.) Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but on September 26, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-7.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of Defendant's denial of his social security claim in this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the SSA. (Tr. 34.) To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[1] Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on July 15, 2012 due to physical and mental impairments. (Tr. 239, 243.)

         After reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined in the SSA. (Tr. 49.) In reaching her conclusion, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration for determining if a person is disabled. The Fourth Circuit has described the five-steps as follows:

[The ALJ] asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to [his] past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (paraphrasing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in the first four steps. Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). However, at the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy despite his limitations. See id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2) (explaining that the Commissioner has the burden to prove at the fifth step “that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can do”).

         In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 48-49.) In reaching her decision, the ALJ first concluded at steps one through three that Plaintiff was not employed, that he suffered from severe physical and mental impairments, [2] and that his impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the Administration's regulations. (Tr. 36-38.) Therefore, the ALJ examined the evidence of Plaintiff's impairments and made a finding as to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). In pertinent part, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except he is precluded from grasping or handling with his non-dominant upper extremity. He can pinch lightweights and use the non-dominant hand as support for the dominant hand. He should avoid concentrated exposure to heights or moving machinery. He is further limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks with occasional decision making and occasional changes to the work duties. He should have only casual non-intense contact with others necessary to perform work duties.

(Tr. 38.) Having established Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform the work in which he had previously been employed. (Tr. 47.) Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step of the process: determining whether, given the limitations embodied in his RFC, Plaintiff could perform any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 48-49.) To make that determination, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform three jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy: “sandwich board carrier, ”[3] “usher, ”[4] and “ticket taker.”[5] (Tr. 48.) According to the DOT, all of these jobs involve “light work.” The ALJ accepted the VE's testimony and concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not prevent him from working; consequently, Plaintiff's applications for Title II and Title XVI benefits were denied. (Tr. 48-49.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner fulfilled her lawful duty in her determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the ...


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