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Huffman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

July 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Before the Court is a Complaint seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).[1] (ECF No. 2.) Plaintiff Robert Huffman prosecutes this action on behalf of his wife, Karen Beth Huffman (hereinafter “Claimant”). Plaintiff was substituted as a party following Claimant's death on March 24, 2016.

         By standing order filed in this case on March 17, 2016, this action was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn for submission of proposed findings and recommendations for disposition (the “PF&R”). (ECF No. 4.) On December 14, 2016, the magistrate judge entered his PF&R, recommending that this Court deny Plaintiff's request for judgment on the pleadings, grant the Commissioner's request for judgment on the pleadings, affirm the Commissioner's decision, and dismiss this case. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the PF&R on January 3, 2017 (the “Objections”).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court OVERRULES the Objections, (ECF No. 26), ADOPTS the PF&R, (ECF No. 25), DENIES Plaintiff's request for judgment on the pleadings, (ECF No. 20), GRANTS the Commissioner's request for judgment on the pleadings, (ECF No. 23), AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner, and DISMISSES this action.


         The facts concerning this matter are fully set forth in the PF&R and need not be repeated here at length. In short, Claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on June 25, 2012, alleging disability as of November 1, 2008, [2] due to diabetes, neuropathy, high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart problems, and arterial disease. (Tr. 56.) Claimant would later complain of mental impairments, including problems with memory and concentration. (See Id. at 240.) For purposes of her DIB application, Claimant's date last insured (“DLI”) was June 30, 2012. (Id. at 11.) The applications were denied initially on October 26, 2012. Upon reconsideration, Claimant's SSI claim was allowed with a later onset date of December 5, 2012. The DIB claim was denied upon reconsideration. (Id. at 132-34.)

         Administrative Law Judge Sabrina M. Tilley (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on July 30, 2014. On October 29, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 11-21.) The ALJ found at step one of the “sequential evaluation” process that Claimant “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 11, 2011, the amended alleged onset date.” (Id. at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had several severe impairments, specifically: degenerative disc disease, calcaneal spurs, diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, and coronary artery disease. (Id.) At step three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 14.) The ALJ next found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(b), reduced by certain exertional limitations. (Id. at 15- 19.) Finally, the ALJ found at step four that while Claimant was incapable of performing past relevant work, there were a significant number of jobs existing in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (Id. at 20.)

         The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on January 2, 2016. (Tr. 1-6.) On March 17, 2016, Claimant filed the Complaint in this Court.


         A. Review of the PF&R

         The Court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the findings or recommendations to which no objections are addressed. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). In addition, this Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party “makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the Court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982).

         B. Review of the ALJ's Findings and Decision

         Judicial review of a final decision regarding disability benefits is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (“A factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.”). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). If “conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, ” the Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision. Id. (citing Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)).

         A claimant bears the burden of proving to the Commissioner that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993). “The term ‘disability' means . . . 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 . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step “sequential evaluation” process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) & 416.920(a)(4). In Hall v. Harris, the Fourth Circuit provided the following description of the “sequential evaluation” analysis:

Under the process the ALJ must determine in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether that impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of Appendix 1 which warrants a finding of disability without considering vocational factors; and (4) if not, whether the impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. By satisfying either step 3 or 4, the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability. The burden then shifts to the Secretary and leads to the fifth and final inquiry in the sequence: whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both his remaining physical and mental capacities (defined as residual functional capacity) and his vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.

658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920 (providing the “sequential evaluation” analysis). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of the ...

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