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Lewis v. Astrue

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

April 29, 2013

DIANNA J. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, [1] Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHARLES B. DAY, Magistrate Judge.

Dianna J. Lewis, ("Plaintiff") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiff's Motion") (ECF No. 28) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Commissioner's Motion") (ECF No. 33). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, and GRANTS Commissioner's Motion.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed for disability benefits on May 18, 2007. R. 56. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim on first review on September 14, 2007, R. 58-61, and on reconsideration on January 4, 2008. R. 69-70. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 11, 2009. R 19-55. On July 29, 2009, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. R. 9-18.

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim using the five-step sequential process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2008), and further explained below. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 19, 2005, the alleged onset date. R. 11. At the second step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, obstructive sleep apnea, and obesity. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's plantar fasciitis, hepatomegaly of the liver, peripheral vascular disease, and depression did not qualify as severe impairments. R. 12-13. At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals" a listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 13. The ALJ stated that he considered the possible effects of Plaintiff's obesity in evaluating the severity of her conditions. Id. At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except that she could do no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she could only occasionally perform other postural maneuvers (including climbing stairs or ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling); would have to avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, and other environmental irritants; and would have to avoid even moderate exposure to hazards (such as unprotected heights or moving machinery). R. 13-16. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a janitor, custodian, or factory worker. R. 16. At the fifth step, the ALJ determined that considering Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, " including bench assembler, sales attendant/greeter, and router. R. 17. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date of August 19, 2005, through the date of the decision. R. 18.

Plaintiff subsequently requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. R. 4-5. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request on February 2, 2010, making the ALJ's decision final and appealable. R. 1-3.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ "with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 F.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) ("It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.").

The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court "determine the weight of the evidence" or "substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. If the ALJ's factual finding, however, "was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, " then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

A person is deemed legally disabled if she is unable "to do 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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (2011). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If she is doing such activity, she is not disabled.
2) If she is not doing such activity, determine whether she has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If she does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled.
3) If she does have such impairment or combination of impairments, determine whether she has an impairment that "meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If she does have such impairment, she is disabled.
4) If she does not, considering her residual functional capacity, determine whether she can do her "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If ...

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