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Harris v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

January 2, 2020

TERESA D. HARRIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant


          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Teresa Harris ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim, for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on September 30, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of July 25, 2009. (Tr. at 17, 157-58.)[2] Her claim was denied initially (Tr. at 67-80, 94-98), and that determination was upheld on reconsideration (Tr. at 81-93, 104-11). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 112-13.) Plaintiff, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing on July 7, 2016. (Tr. at 17.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 31), and, on August 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of that decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).


         Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Or. 2006). However, "the scope of [the] review of [such an administrative] decision ... is extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Or. 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 [underlying the denial of benefits] 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 brackets omitted).

         "Substantial evidence meanscsuch 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 omitted).

         "In 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 Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, "[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.'" Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[3]

         "The 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 economy." Id.

         A 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]he 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).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment "equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations," then 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, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al] capacity (CRFC)." Id. at 179.[4] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can "perform 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 Commissioner to prove that a significant No. 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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" between July 25, 2009, her alleged onset date, and December 31, 2013, her date last insured. Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

fibromyalgia, arthritis, asthma, obesity, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)[, ] and sleep apnea[.]

(Tr. at 19.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 20-21.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC through her date last insured as follows:

[She could] perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she was allowed an option to alternate between sitting and standing. [Plaintiff] was precluded from climbing or working around heights or dangerous equipment. She was limited to frequent but not constant right overhead teaching and occasional bending, stooping, squatting, and crawling. Additionally, [Plaintiff] was limited to the performance of simple, routine and repetitive tasks.

(Tr. at 21.) At step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that all of Plaintiff s past relevant work exceeded her RFC. (Tr. at 30.) However, the ALJ determined at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, she could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 30-31.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 31.)

         Plaintiff now raises three challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, she argues that the vocational expert's testimony, on which the ALJ relied at step five, conflicts with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). Second, Plaintiff contends that the RFC fails to account for her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace as required by Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Or. 2015). Third, she maintains that the ALJ failed to follow the Social Security Administration's mandated procedure for evaluating fibromyalgia. After careful consideration of the record, the Court finds that none of the issues raised by Plaintiff merit remand.

         A. Step five

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's reliance on the vocational expert's testimony at step five of the sequential analysis. Specifically, the Plaintiff contends that the vocational expert's testimony conflicted with the DOT as to all of the jobs identified, and that the ALJ failed to obtain a reasonable explanation for the conflicts. In Pearson v. Colvin,810 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2015), the Fourth Circuit clarified the steps an ALJ must take to identify and resolve apparent conflicts between a vocational expert's testimony and the DOT. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit held that; if an expert's testimony apparently conflicts with the DOT, the expert's testimony can only provide substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision if the ALJ received an explanation from the expert explaining the conflict and determined both (1) that the ...

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