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Edwards v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

June 6, 2019

CAROLYN MAY EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DAVID J. NOVAK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On February 24, 2015, Carolyn M. Edwards ("Plaintiff) protectively applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), alleging disability from arthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") and back and shoulder pain, with an alleged onset date of May 1, 2010. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner ("Defendant").

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that: (1) at the time of the ALJ's decision, the manner of appointment of the Acting Commissioner, ALJ and members of the Appeals Council violated the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution, rendering their actions as officers of the United States devoid of constitutional authority; (2) the ALJ failed in her residual functional capacity ("RFC") findings to account for Plaintiffs moderate limitations in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence and pace; and, (3) the ALJ posed an incomplete hypothetical to the vocational expert ("VE"). (Mem. Supp. PL's Mot. Summ. J. ("PL's Mem.") (ECF No. 16) at 6-26.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter ripe for review.[1] For the reasons that follow, this Court recommends that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On February 24, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability from arthritis, asthma, COPD and back and shoulder pain, with an alleged onset date of May 1, 2010. (R. at 108, 230-37.) The SSA denied Plaintiffs application initially on September 1, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on January 4, 2016. (R. at 133, 151.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on August 2, 2017. (R. at 33-78, 173-75.) On January 4, 2018, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 18-27.) On July 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-6.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination 'when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm > of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Indeed, "the substantial evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v. Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 274 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)); see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1157 (2019) (holding that the substantial-evidence inquiry requires case-by-case consideration, with deference to the presiding ALJ's credibility determinations). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record, the Court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the Court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision. Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC, accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On August 2, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by an attorney) testified in person and a VE testified via telephone. (R. at 33-78.) On January 4, 2018, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 18-27.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Social Security Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 19-27). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 24, 2015 - Plaintiffs application date. (R. at 20.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease ("DDD"), asthma and anxiety. (R. at 21.) At step three, the ALJ concluded 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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (R. at 21-23.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) with additional limitations. (R. at 23.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could only occasionally kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 23.) In the ALJ's estimation, Plaintiff could frequently climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 23.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not tolerate even moderate exposure to mold. (R. at 23-24.) The ALJ opined that Plaintiff mentally could perform simple, routine tasks. (R. at 23.) And the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could occasionally and superficially maintain contact with co-workers and the general public. (R. at 23.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. at 26.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs age, education, work experience and RFC allowed her to perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including work as a collator, marker and supply worker. (R. at 26-27.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 27.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, fifty-one years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, has no past relevant work. (R. at 20, 26, 37, 71-73.) She applied for SSI, alleging disability from arthritis, asthma, COPD and back and shoulder pain, with an alleged onset date of May 1, 2010. (R. at 108, 230-37.) Plaintiff appeals to this Court, contending that: (1) at the time of the ALJ's decision, the manner of appointment of the Acting Commissioner, ALJ and members of the Appeals Council violated the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution, rendering their actions as officers of the United States devoid of constitutional authority; (2) the ALJ failed in her RFC findings to account for Plaintiffs moderate limitations in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence and pace; and, (3) the ALJ posed an incomplete hypothetical to the VE. (PL's Mem. at 6-26.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in her decision.

         A. Plaintiff Waived Her Right to Challenge the Appointment of the ALJ, Acting ...


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