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Brown v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 17, 2019

NORA BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [#15, #16]

          Richard J. Leon United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Nora Brown ("plaintiff) brings this action against defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("defendant") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal of the denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. See Compl. [Dkt. #1]. This case comes before me on plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of Reversal [Dkt. #15] and defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance [Dkt. #16]. For the reasons set forth below, I DENY plaintiffs motion and GRANT defendant's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Statutory Background

         Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act provide benefits for "disabled" claimants, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a), 1382(a)(1), who demonstrate an inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment. . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months," id. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). In order to qualify, the impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'" Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") assesses disability claims through a five-step sequential evaluation. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The burden of proof rests on the claimant in steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). At step one, the claimant must show that she is not presently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the claimant must show that she has at least one "severe impairment" or combination of impairments that significantly limits her ability to perform basic work activities. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If she does, step three requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant's impairments "meet" or are "functionally equal" to one of the impairments listed in the relevant regulations, Appendix 1 to subpart P of 20 C.F.R. § 404 ("Listed Impairments"). Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If they do, the claimant "is deemed disabled and the inquiry is at an end." Butler, 353 F.3d at 997; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant does not succeed at step three, the Commissioner assesses a claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC")-that is, the Commissioner must determine the most work the claimant can still do despite her limitations. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), 404.1545(a). At step four, the claimant must demonstrate that she is incapable of performing her prior work based on her RFC. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If she makes this showing, the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to demonstrate that, based on the claimant's RFC, she can "make an adjustment to other work" in the national economy. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the Commissioner concludes that the claimant can engage in "other work," then she is not disabled under the regulations. Id. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Otherwise, the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Id.

         If a claimant's application for DIB or SSI is initially denied, she has the option of seeking review by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.929. When disability claims are adjudicated before an ALJ, the ALJ is obligated to compile a comprehensive record incorporating all facts pertinent to the Commissioner's determination. See Simms v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 1047, 1050 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The ALJ's opinion must show that he "has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits," id., including evidence that was rejected, Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 708 (D.C. Cir. 1986).

         A claimant may appeal the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470(a). The Council may deny the request for review, grant the request but dismiss the case, grant the request and remand the case to the ALJ, or grant the request and issue a decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.967. If the Council grants review and issues a decision, it may affirm, modify, or reverse the ALJ's decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.979. When the Appeals Council considers a claimant's appeal and enters a decision, "it is the Appeal's Council decision which constitutes the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)." Schoenfeld v. Apfel, 237 F.3d 788, 792 n.2 (7th Cir. 2001). Where the Appeals Council adopts, as modified, the opinion of the ALJ, a court "must review the decision of the ALJ as modified by the Appeals Council." Arbogast v. Bowen, 860 F.2d 1400, 1402-03 (7th Cir. 1988).

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff first applied for DIB and SSI benefits on December 17, 2013, claiming that she had been disabled since August 8, 2012. AR at 90. Her initial applications were denied in July 2014, AR at 107-10, and her request for reconsideration was denied in August 2014, AR at 114-17. She challenged the Commissioner's decision at a hearing before an ALJ in July 2016. AR at 20-46. Prior to the hearing, plaintiff submitted a memorandum requesting that the hearing record be held open for thirty days if the ALJ considered vocational testimony about other jobs in the economy under step five of the sequential evaluation process. AR at 218-19. At the hearing, plaintiff was represented by an attorney who gave an opening argument. AR at 24-25. Both plaintiff and a vocational expert testified and were examined by both plaintiffs attorney and the ALJ. AR at 26-45. After asking the vocational expert a hypothetical question and receiving a response, plaintiffs attorney stated "Okay, thank you. That's all I have, your honor." AR at 44. At the conclusion of the hearing, the following exchange took place:

ALJ: Counselor, do you have any further evidence to present today?
ATTY: No, your honor.
ALJ: Any closing?
ATTY: No, your ...

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