United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND 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. Matthew Willis ("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-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 and disability insurance benefits on October 21, 2010. (Tr. 69.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (Tr. 69, 83.) On April 4, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Robert Rideout ("ALJ") (Tr. 26), who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 9, 2012 (Tr. 12-20). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied March 25, 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).
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).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
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.
I. 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 November 1, 2009, the date of alleged disability. (Tr. 14.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: curvature of the spine and degenerative disc disease. ( Id. ) However, at step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairments 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. ( Id. )
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 additional postural and environmental restrictions. ( Id. ) The ALJ stated the following limitations:
During the period from November 1, 2009 through December 31, 2011, the claimant could lift/carry and push/pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He could sit, stand, and walk up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday. He required a work environment that would permit him to stand up at a workstation to stretch for one to two minutes every half hour (i.e. a "sit/stand option"). He could occasionally perform such postural activities as climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolds, stairs, and ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. He was not able to perform tasks requiring any exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts.
(Tr. 15.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms not fully credible. (Tr. 17.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the requirements of his past ...