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Turley v. Berryhill

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

March 14, 2018

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


          John T. Copenhaver, Jr. United States District Judge

          Pending are the objections to the magistrate judge's Proposed Findings and Recommendation (“PF&R”), filed by defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) on January 19, 2018.

         I. Procedural History

         The plaintiff, Delana Lynn Turley (“Claimant”), instituted this action in this court on March 17, 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) (2016). Claimant seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final determination denying her two applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 613(b)(1)(B) and the standing order in this district, this action was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Dwane L. Tinsley for findings of fact and recommendations for disposition. Claimant and the Commissioner have filed cross motions for judgment on the pleadings.

         On January 16, 2018, the magistrate judge filed his PF&R, finding that “[t]he ALJ's step three evaluation is lacking the information necessary to inform a reviewing court of the specific impairments the [administrative law judge (“ALJ”)] considered and the criteria for those impairments.” (PF&R 10.)

         Step three, which is part of a mandatory five-step analysis conducted by the Commissioner, involves comparing a claimant's impairments to listed impairments in the social security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) (2017). Thus, the magistrate judge recommends that the court

grant [Claimant's] Memorandum in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings to the extent [Claimant] seeks remand, deny the [Commissioner's] Brief in Support of [the Commissioner's] decision, reverse the final decision of the Commissioner, and remand this case for further proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and dismiss this matter from the court's docket.

(PF&R 11 (emphases and citations omitted).)

         The Commissioner filed objections to the PF&R on January 19, 2018. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's step three conclusion is amply supported by record evidence and that remand is thus unwarranted. (See Obj. 7.) Claimant responded on January 30, 2018, urging the court to adopt the magistrate judge's analysis. (See Resp. 1.)

         II. Standard of Review

          The court reviews de novo those portions of the magistrate judge's PF&R to which objections are timely filed. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); see Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(1) (ultimate decision regarding disability determinations rests with the Commissioner). On the other hand, the standard for review of the Commissioner's decision is rather deferential to the Commissioner, for “a reviewing court must ‘uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'” Brown Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Preston v. Heckler, 769 F.2d 988, 990 (4th Cir. 1985)); Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974) (court must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are supported by substantial evidence); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citations omitted); accord Brown, 873 F.3d at 267.

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [a district court does] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Substantial evidence is by definition more than “a mere scintilla, ” Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996), but “may be somewhat less than a preponderance, ” Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1996)).

         III. Discussion

         20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4) set forth “[t]he five-step sequential evaluation process” that the Commissioner applies when deciding whether a claimant is disabled. As explained by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit,

[t]he Commissioner asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a “listed” impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4th Cir. 2012). The claimant has the burden of production and proof at Steps 1-4. Id.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (full citation added). At issue in the present action is step three.

         At “step three, the ALJ decides whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations for being severe enough to preclude a person from doing any gainful activity.” Brown, 873 F.3d at 254. The listings of specific impairments are found in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). To meet a listing, a claimant “must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). To equal a listing, a claimant “must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Id. at 531. A claimant who meets or equals a step three listing is conclusively disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); accord Radford, 734 F.3d at 291 (citing Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 471 (1986) and McNunis v. Califano, 605 F.2d 743, 744 (4th Cir. 1979)).

         The ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: “chronic lumbosacral strain, with left radicular symptoms; fibromyalgia[;] and hyperlipidemia.” (Tr. 23.) At step three of the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that “[C]laimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in” the regulations.

         (Id. 25.) The entirety of the ALJ's step three ...

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