United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Barbara Jean Demery ("Plaintiff") 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 and supplemental security income ("SSI"). 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, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-23] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-25] be granted, and the agency's final decision be upheld.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 9, 2010. (Tr. 33.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. ( Id. ) On August 4, 2011, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Juan Marrero ("ALJ"), who issued an unfavorable ruling on August 18, 2011. ( Id. ) Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied February 26, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 2.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. Standard of Review
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits 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). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). "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 [Commissioner].'" Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
II. Disability Determination
In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of her past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Albright v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 74 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.
III. ALJ's Findings
Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff "not disabled" as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful employment since January 20, 2010, the date of alleged disability. (Tr. 35.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease with peripheral neuropathy and lumbar radiculopathy. ( Id. ) However, at step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairment was not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 37.)
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and found that Plaintiff has the ability to perform light work provided that she is limited to only frequent and not constant use of her hands for fingering and handling. (Tr. 37.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms not fully credible. (Tr. 40.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a church custodian. (Tr. 40-41.) The ALJ alternatively found, at step five, upon considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that Plaintiff is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 41.)
IV. Plaintiff's Argument
Plaintiff's sole contention is that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff is capable of performing the exertional demands of light work given the unrebutted evidence that Plaintiff uses a cane. Light work requires the ability to stand and walk for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday, as well as the ability to frequently lift or carry objects weighing up to ten pounds. Plaintiff argues that a person who uses a hand-held assistive device cannot perform the exertional ...