United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE #18 & 20] pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Robert Ray Moorefield ("Plaintiff") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), 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 #18] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #20] be denied, and this case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on February 12, 2008, alleging disability beginning October 6, 2007. (Tr. 174, 175.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (Tr. 51-54.) On February 10, 2010, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Richard Perlowski (the "ALJ"), who issued a ruling denying Plaintiff's applications on March 19, 2010. (Tr. 55-65, 508-38.)
Subsequently, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 66.) On July 27, 2011, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for resolution of certain issues. (Tr. 66-68.) Specifically, the Appeals Council stated that the ALJ's reliance on the findings of the Disability Determination Services ("DDS") consultants to find that Plaintiff is able to perform a reduced range of light work (avoiding frequent postural activities and exposures to hazards) is misplaced because the consultants' residual functional capacity findings established that Plaintiff is limited to walking/standing only 2 hours in an 8-hour day, more closely approximating sedentary work. (Tr. 67, 215-222, 234-241.) The Appeals Council further stated that the ALJ's findings that Plaintiff's complaints of pain are not credible or supported by the objective medical evidence was improper because the ALJ did not address whether Plaintiff has an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged and did not adequately discuss the factors required by Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7. The Appeals Council directed that the ALJ, on remand: evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints and provide rationale in accordance with the disability regulations pertaining to the evaluation of symptoms and SSR 96-7p; give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity ("RFC") and provide rationale with specific references to the evidence; and obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert ("VE") to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base. (Tr. 68.)
On April 6, 2012, a second hearing was held before the ALJ, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel and Julie Sawyer-Little, a VE, appeared and testified. (Tr. 487-507.) On June 1, 2012, the ALJ issued a ruling denying Plaintiff's applications. (Tr. 10-23.) On April 2, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 5-8.) 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 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 Soc. Sec. Admin. , 174 F.3d 473, 475 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 .
When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(e)(3).
III. ALJ's Findings
Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff "not disabled" as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 23.) At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since November 6, 2007. (Tr. 15.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "status post hip replacement, status post rotator cuff repair, degenerative disc disease and hypertension." (Tr. 15.) Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairments of anxiety and depression do not cause more than minimal limitation in the Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities and are therefore non-severe. (Tr. 16.) At step three, the ALJ concluded ...