United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT B. JONES, Jr., Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-29, DE-33] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Judy Watkins Baysden ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her applications for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, this court recommends denying Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, granting Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and upholding the final decision of the Commissioner.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB and SSI on August 7, 2009, alleging disability beginning March 18, 2006. (R. 187-95). Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 104-16, 120-28). A hearing before the ALJ was held on September 13, 2011, at which Claimant proceeded prose and a witness and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 44-78). On January 6, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 24-36). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 17-18), and submitted additional evidence as part of her request (R. 936-2146). After reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on October 9, 2012. (R. 6-14). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now final administrative decision.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla... and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:
The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 474 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. ld.
When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and 416.920a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. §§ 404.1520a(e)(3), 416.920a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) improper assessment of Claimant's credibility; (2) improper evaluation of the medical opinion evidence; and (3) improper assessment of Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). Pl.'s Mem. [DE-30] at 10-20.
IV. FACTUAL HISTORY
A. ALJ's Findings
Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 26). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: kidney stones with ureteropelvic junction obstruction, chronic upper respiratory infection, residuals of a hysterectomy with pelvic pain, residuals of a colectomy, bipolar disorder, lumbar spondylosis and diabetes mellitus. (R. 26-27). The ALJ also found Claimant had a nonsevere impairment of borderline intellectual functioning. (R. 27). However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 27-29). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild restriction in her activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning and concentration, persistence and pace with no episodes of decompensation. (R. 28).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to
perform simple, routine repetitive light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with a thirty-minute interval sit/stand option. The undersigned also determines that the claimant should never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds and only occasionally climb ramps and stairs. Occasional balancing, stooping and kneeling, never crouching or crawling. She would have to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. She would be limited to frequent, not constant use of the upper extremities for fine and gross manipulations. She would be limited to simple routine, repetitive tasks, in that she can apply commonsense understanding to carry out oral, written and diagrammatic instructions. She can occasionally interact with the public but is frequently able to interact with co-workers.
(R. 29). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not fully credible. (R. 29-34). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a nurse's assistant. (R. 34). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to ...