United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
For Bobby Gray, Plaintiff: Jonathan Blair Biser, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rachel Lane Thomasson, Hardison & Cochran, PLLC, Raleigh, NC.
For Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant: Mary Ellen Russell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Mark J. Goldenberg, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, MD.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 25, 27]. A hearing on this matter was held in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on July 28, 2014. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion is GRANTED, defendant's motion is DENIED, and, accordingly, the judgment of the Commissioner is REVERSED.
Plaintiff protectively filed for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act on May 4, 2010, alleging disability beginning on March 4, 2009. The Social Security Administration denied plaintiffs application initially and upon reconsideration. On October 13,2011, Mr. Gray appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On December 1, 2011, the ALJ denied Mr. Gray's application. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review on April 5, 2013, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on that date. Mr. Gray now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff suffers from a degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine following a work accident on March 4, 2009, since which he has not worked. [Tr. 34]. Mr. Gray underwent several MRis in connection with this injury, which showed progressive degeneration. [Tr. 230, 324, 589, 591-92]. Mr. Gray underwent extensive treatment for his back pain, including surgery on July 29,2009, but his pain persists. [Tr. 35-39, 235-36]. At the ALJ hearing in 2011, plaintiff testified that he still experienced back pain every day, despite surgery, using a Tens unit from two to seven times per week, and taking numerous prescription pain medications. [Tr. 35-37]. Mr. Gray also testified that he could only stand for approximately two hours before needing to rest, and he could only sit in a chair for up to one hour before his feet went numb and he experienced back pain. [Tr. 38-39]. In addition to back pain, plaintiff suffers from shoulder pain, knee pain, hepatitis C, hypertension, depression, and anxiety. [Tr. 17].
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as " evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).
In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments (Listing). See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing or is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the analysis proceeds to step four, where the claimant's residual functional capacity (" RPC" ) is assessed to determine whether plaintiff can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the ...