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Ashcraft v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

September 12, 2017

KRISTIE MICHELE TRENT ASHCRAFT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JAMES E. SEIBERT, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. SUMMARY

         The Plaintiff advances three arguments, none of which the Court finds persuasive. Therefore, the Court recommends that the Plaintiff's [ECF No. 10] Motion for Summary Judgment be denied and the Commissioner's [ECF No. 12] Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.

         First, the Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) improperly discounted the psychological opinions of medical professionals and instead formulated his own opinions of Plaintiff's limitations based only on his interpretation of Plaintiff's daily living activities. However, the weight given to each source is explained satisfactorily by the ALJ, and substantial evidence exists to support each finding.

         Second, the Plaintiff argues since the ALJ used standards which are legally insufficient in determining the amount of weight that should be given to medical professionals who treated Plaintiff, substantial evidence did not exist to support the ALJ's overall conclusion. Yet, the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         Third, the Plaintiff argues that since substantial evidence does not exist to support the ALJ's findings, the only appropriate remedy is a remand only for the purposes of calculating the amount of Plaintiff's benefits. However, as stated above, the ALJ's findings were indeed supported by substantial evidence.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On June 26, 2013, the Plaintiff, Kristie Michele Trent Ashcraft, filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits (DIB). R. 23. The Plaintiff's application alleged a disability beginning May 29, 2013. R. 23. The Plaintiff's application was denied on September 24, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on November 22, 2013. R. 23. Thereafter, the Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on December 11, 2013. R. 23. The Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing held in Morgantown, WV on May 22, 2015, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). R. 23. On August 21, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 20. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's findings on September 28, 2016. R. 1.

         On November 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court to obtain judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application. ECF No. 1.

         III. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         In determining whether the Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. The first step in the process is determining whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. §§ 404.1520(b); 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, then the second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that are severe. Id. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then the analysis moves to the third step in the sequence, which requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Listings). Id. §§ 404.1520(d); 416.920(d). If an impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is disabled. Id. §§ 404.1520(d); 416.920(d). However, if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the claimant's ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite the limitations of her impairments. Id. §§ 404.1520(e); 416.920(e).

         After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must determine, at step four, whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(f); 416.920(f). If the claimant does not have the RFC to do her past relevant work, then she has established a prima facie case of disability, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate, at the final step in the process, that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experiences. Id. §§ 404.1520(g); 416.920(g); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983).

         At step one of the sequential process, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 29, 2013, the alleged onset date. R. 15. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bipolar I/II disorder without psychotic features, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, personality disorder not otherwise specified, and morbid obesity. R. 25. At the third step, the ALJ found that none of the Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments contained in the listings. R. 26. The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff had the following RFC:

[T]o perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except: should work in a low stress environment with no production line or assembly line type of pace, no independent decision-making responsibilities, and minimal changes in the daily work routine; is limited to unskilled work involving only routine and repetitive instructions and tasks; should have no interaction with the ...

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