United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
WILLIAM L. OSTEEN, Jr., District Judge.
This matter is before the court for review of the Memorandum Opinion and Recommendation ("Recommendation") filed on July 12, 2013, by the Magistrate Judge in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). (Doc. 16.) The Recommendation was served on the parties to this action on July 12, 2013. Counsel for Plaintiff filed objections (Doc. 18) and counsel for Commissioner responded to Plaintiff's objections. (Doc. 20.)
This court is required to "make a de novo determination of those portions of the [Magistrate Judge's] report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
Having conducted such a review, this court will adopt all of the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation except for Part V.A., which deals with the conclusion of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") that Plaintiff is not disabled because she has several "sedentary" jobs available to her notwithstanding her physical limitations. As to that part, the court will order the case remanded to the Commissioner with instructions to clarify her findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to the discussion below.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
In cases such as this one, where the matter was previously adjudicated by an ALJ, review of the ALJ's ruling is limited to the following two issues: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, and (2) whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010); Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The question is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen , 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). If a reasonable mind might accept as adequate the evidence in support of the ALJ's decision, the court should not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Hays , 907 F.2d at 1456.
Review of the ALJ's ruling is limited further by the so-called "Chenery Doctrine, " which prohibits courts from considering post hoc rationalizations in defense of administrative agency decisions. See Sec. & Exch. Comm'n v. Chenery Corp. , 332 U.S. 194 (1947). Under the doctrine, a reviewing court "must judge the propriety of [agency] action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency." Id . at 196. "If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis." Id.
II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
The Social Security Regulations define "disability" for the purpose of obtaining benefits under the Act as the "inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
The ALJ follows a five-step analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The final question in the analysis is whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering both her residual functional capacity (RFC) and her vocational abilities. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Here, the ALJ reached the fifth step of the analysis, at which point she asked the testifying Vocational Expert ("VE") to comment on the type and number of jobs available to hypothetical persons sharing certain of Plaintiff's characteristics, e.g., age, education, past relevant work experience, and physical limitations. (See Tr. at 85-91.) With each new hypothetical, the ALJ added various limitations specific to Plaintiff and had the VE modify her conclusions accordingly. (Id.)
At one point, the ALJ asked the VE about jobs available for a person who "could lift no more than 20 pounds at a time and occasionally lift or carry objects weighing up to ten pounds." (Tr. at 88-89.) The VE testified that a claimant with that limitation could perform several plastics-related jobs in the "light physical demand" category, such as "Injection Molding Machine Tender" (50, 000 positions nationally, 2, 000 positions in North Carolina), "Inspector and Hand Packager of Plastic Products" (35, 000 positions nationally, 2, 000 positions in North Carolina), and Poly Packer Heat Sealer (40, 000 positions nationally, 1, 500 positions in North Carolina). (Tr. at 89-90.)
The ALJ then further refined the hypothetical by limiting the hypothetical claimant's lifting capabilities to "no more than ten pounds at a time." (Tr. at 90.) The VE responded that "the plastics jobs" would still be available to a claimant with that limitation, as well as certain jobs in the "sedentary" work category, like "Cuff Folder" (5, 000 positions nationally, 200 positions in North Carolina) and "Lamp Shade Assembler" (4, 000 positions nationally, 500 positions in North Carolina). (Tr. at 90-91.)
Finally, the ALJ added another of Plaintiff's physical characteristics to the hypothetical: the need to alternate between sitting and standing several ...