United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern 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. Perry Murrell ("Plaintiff") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. 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-17] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-19] be denied, and the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 1, 2010. (Tr. 1833.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. ( Id. ) On June 28, 2011, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Edward Bowling ("ALJ"), who issued an unfavorable ruling on September 8, 2011. ( Id. ) Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied March 21, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1.) 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 past relevant 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 Anot disabled@ as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful employment since his alleged onset date of June 30, 2005, but the ALJ chose to proceed with the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. 22.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: osteoporosis in various joints, degenerative disc disease of the spine, arthritis of the upper extremities, and left shoulder rotator cuff tendinitis. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairments, considered in combination, were 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. 23.)
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 with the following restrictions: (1) a sit/stand option every 30 minutes; (2) only occasional reaching with the non-dominant left upper extremity; (3) can climb ramps and stairs, but not ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; (4) no crawling; (5) avoid concentrated exposure to hazards; (6) "as a result of pain, the claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and can apply common sense understanding to carry out oral, written or diagrammatic instructions"; (7) "[t]he claimant has no difficulties getting along with co-workers or the public" but "needs a low stress type of job"; and (8) limited to frequent, but not constant, fine and gross manipulation with the upper extremities. (Tr. 24.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms not fully credible. (Tr. 25.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a fishing vessel deck hand and farm worker. (Tr. 27.) Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. ( Id. )
IV. Plaintiff's Contentions
Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's final decision on several grounds. Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ failed to properly assess the medical opinions provided by his treating physician and the non-examining state agency physician. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating his credibility. Third, Plaintiff maintains that the Commissioner erred by finding his connective tissue disease to be non-severe. Finally, Plaintiff asserts that the VE's testimony was not responsive to the ...