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Hancock v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

April 4, 2014

SONDRA HANCOCK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

KIMBERLY A. SWANK, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE #23, DE #25] pursuant to Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff Sondra Hancock ("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"). The parties have filed memoranda in support of their respective motions, and the time for filing responsive briefs has expired. Accordingly, the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, the undersigned recommends granting Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, denying Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and remanding the case to the Commissioner for further consideration.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB and SSI on May 11, 2010, alleging disability beginning September 30, 2003. (R. 204-16.) Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 82-85.) A hearing before Administrative Law Judge William Andersen ("ALJ") was held on October 7, 2011, at which Claimant was represented by counsel. (R. 28.) An impartial vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 48-55.) On November 28, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 13-21.) Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 8), and submitted additional evidence as part of her request (R. 5). After reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on February 8, 2013. (R. 1-5.) Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now final administrative decision.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., ("Act") 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) (2012). 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) (alterations in original). 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).

DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

"Disability" is defined under the Act as the "inability to engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

Regulations promulgated pursuant to the Act provide a five-step, sequential evaluation process that the ALJ must follow in evaluating a disability claim:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled....
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the [applicable] duration requirement... or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled....
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings... and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled....
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled....
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you ...

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