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Hawkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia

March 2, 2018




         Pending before this Court is Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 10), Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 13) and Plaintiff's Reply to Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 14). This is an action seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Claimant's application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.


         Claimant, Laura Ann Hawkins, filed an application for DIB on May 2, 2013. Claimant alleged disability beginning February 13, 2012. The claim was denied initially on August 13, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 28, 2013. Claimant filed a request for hearing on December 6, 2013. A video hearing was held on February 11, 2015. Claimant appeared in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the Administrative Law Judge presided over the hearing from Charleston, West Virginia. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Claimant's applications on March 3, 2015 (Tr. at 11-25). The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on July 28, 2016 (Tr. at 1-5). Subsequently, Claimant brought the present action seeking judicial review of the administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5), a claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 774 (4th Cir. 1972). A disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Social Security Regulations establish a "sequential evaluation" for the adjudication of disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2016). If an individual is found "not disabled" at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. § 404.1520(a). The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. § 404.1520(c). If a severe impairment is present, the third inquiry is whether such impairment meets or equals any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the Administrative Regulations No. 4. Id. § 404.1520(d). If it does, the claimant is found disabled and awarded benefits. Id. If it does not, the fourth inquiry is whether the claimant's impairments prevent the performance of past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(e). By satisfying inquiry four, the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability. Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner, McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983), and leads to the fifth and final inquiry: whether the claimant is able to perform other forms of substantial gainful activity, considering claimant's remaining physical and mental capacities and claimant's age, education and prior work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f) (2016). The Commissioner must show two things: (1) that the claimant, considering claimant's age, education, work experience, skills and physical shortcomings, has the capacity to perform an alternative job, and (2) that this specific job exists in the national economy. McLamore v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 572, 574 (4th Cir. 1976).

         In this particular case, the ALJ determined that Claimant satisfied the first inquiry because she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 13, 2012, and meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2017 (Tr. at 13). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine; bilateral hip bursitis; diabetes; migraines; and obesity. (Id.) At the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the level of severity of any listing in Appendix 1. The ALJ then found that Claimant has a residual functional capacity to perform light work with limitations (Tr. at 17). The ALJ found Claimant would have the following limitations: Claimant can only occasionally perform all postural activities. The claimant is limited to occasional overhead reaching. She can frequently push and pull within the weight restrictions of light work. The claimant must have no exposure to loud industrial type background noise. She must avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, poor ventilation, noxious odors or other lung irritants. The claimant must have no direct exposure to vibrations. (Id.) The ALJ found that Claimant is able to perform as a cashier, fast-food worker and customer service-cashier I/head cashier (Tr. at 24). On this basis, Claimant's application was denied (Tr. at 25).

         Scope of Review

         The sole issue before this court is whether the final decision of the Commissioner denying the claim is supported by substantial evidence. In Blalock v. Richardson, substantial evidence was defined as:

[E]vidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. 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.”

Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). Additionally, the Commissioner, not the court, is charged with resolving conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Nevertheless, the courts Amust not abdicate their traditional functions; they cannot escape their duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.”Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974).

         A careful review of the record reveals the decision of the Commissioner in this case is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Claimant's ...

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