United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ELIZABETH PEAKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Gloria Lewis ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant
to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act
(the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§
405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental
Security Income under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the
Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and
the administrative record has been certified to the Court for
protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance
Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on
November 27, 2013 and March 24, 2014, respectively, alleging
a disability onset date of September 30, 2013 in both
applications. (Tr. at 15, 190-98.) Her applications were denied
initially (Tr. at 66-76, 101-04) and upon reconsideration
(Tr. at 77-100, 108-25). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 126-27.) On October 24,
2016, Plaintiff, along with her attorney and an impartial
vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at
15.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 25-27), and,
on November 15, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs
request for review of the decision, thereby making the
ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision
for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-6).
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). "The courts are not to
try the 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 if they are
supported by substantial evidence and were reached through
application of the correct legal standard." Hancock
v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal
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. 1993) (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 citations 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
reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ]." 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 ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d
at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing 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 Or. 1996).
undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that
"[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris. 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). 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.5" Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. §
Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability
claims." Hancock 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)).
"Under this 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 requirements of a listed
impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and
(5) if not, could perform any other work in the national
finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in
this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation
and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]tie 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 Or. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the
first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets
or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, 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," then "the ALJ must assess the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(CRFC)." Id. at 179. Step four then
requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the
claimant can "petform 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, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a
significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could
perform, despite the claimant's impairments."
Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this
determination, the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant
is able to perform other work considering both [the
claimant's 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.
present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" since her alleged
onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met
her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process.
(Tr. at 17.) At step two, the ALJ further ...