United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
TERESA D. HARRIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
protectively filed her application for DIB on September 30,
2013, alleging a disability onset date of July 25, 2009. (Tr.
at 17, 157-58.) 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).
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).
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
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).
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)).
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]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).
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
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.
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
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
[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.)
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.
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