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Bailey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 23, 2017

WILETTA SHONDELL BAILEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge.

         On September 19. 2016, Wiletta Bailey ("Plaintiff") petitioned this court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and each parties cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 15 and 18). the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). In addition, for the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is GRANTED, and the decision of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural History

         On February 4, 2011. Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income alleging disability beginning on September 1, 2007. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on May 9, 2011 and October 12. 2011, respectively. Subsequently, on November 14, 2011. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on November 27. 2012, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT"). On March 1. 2013, the ALJ rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. See ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff sought review of the ALTs March 1, 2013 decision in this Court and subsequently, the parties jointly moved to remand this case for further proceedings before the Commissioner. On June 18, 2015, this Court granted the parties joint motion for remand to the Commissioner. On February 26, 2016 and June 10, 2016, two additional hearings were held before the ALJ and on July 19, 2016 the ALJ again rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.

         On September 19, 2016, Plaintiff tiled the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's July 19, 2016 decision.[1] On February 3. 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. On March 29, 2017, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v. Chater. 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court."); see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the Secretary's finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence."). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court "is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [Plaintiff] 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) ("Under the Social Security Act, [a reviewing court] must uphold the tactual findings of the [AIJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.").

         Substantial evidence 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) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (2012). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d at 638. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal 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]." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438. 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for DIB, a claimant must establish that she is under disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The term ''disability'' for purposes of the Social Security Act, is defined as the "[i]nability 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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), l382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "(her) physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such a severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), l382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ, acting on behalf of the Commissioner, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhari v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that, '"fi]f at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further." Barnhari v. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(i), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).

         At step two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the duration requirement[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.152O(a)(4)(ii). 4l6.92O(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments meeting the durational requirement of 12 months, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.152O(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c), 416.909.

         At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin. 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), which is then used at the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. The ALJ must consider even those impairments that are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         In determining RFC, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a two-part test. Craig v. Chaler, 76 F.3d 585, 594 (4th Cir. 1996); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing, the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider all the available evidence, including medical history, objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 96-7p. To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such as the claimant's daily activities, treatments she has received for her symptoms, medications, and any other factors contributing to functional limitations. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability to perform past relevant work based on the determined RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(e).

         Where the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step of the sequential analysis. At steps one through four of the evaluation, the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); see also Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step five, however, the burden of proof shifts to the ALJ to prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC (as determined at step four), and; (2) that such alternative work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v); See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4, h Cir. 2012); See also Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id.

         ALJ Determination

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation and found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 1, 2007. ECF No. 12-9 at 8. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of status/post abdominal and breast surgeries; migraines, depression, anxiety, seizures, and Raynaud's disease. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. Subpart P. Appendix 1. Id. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she could occasionally lift and or carry ten pounds and frequently lift and or carry less than ten pounds. She could stand or walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. She could push or pull as much as she can lift and or carry. She could occasionally climb ramps or stairs but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch but can never crawl. She can occasionally be exposed to hazards such as moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights but cannot operate a motor vehicle. She can only occasionally be exposed to extreme cold. She can frequently handle and finger. She can constantly understand. remember and carry out instructions concerning simple tasks and ca[n] frequently understand, remember and carry out instructions concerning detailed tasks.

Id. at 6. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff "ha(d] no past relevant work [.]" Id. at 10.

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that, "[c]onsidering the claimant's age. education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform." Id. at 11. Thus, the ALJ concluded that, "[T]he claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social ...


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