United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT B. JONES, Jr., Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-22, DE-27] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Alber Tyrone Treadwell ("Claimant") 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, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. 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, this court recommends denying Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, granting Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and upholding the final decision of the Commissioner.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on August 27, 2009, alleging disability beginning December 15, 2008. (R. 18, 168-179). Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 18, 94-98, 100-08). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge Edward Bowling ("the ALJ") was held on February 2, 2012, at which Claimant was represented by a non-attorney representative and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 41-89). On March 1, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 15-29). On February 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 4-9). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now final administrative decision.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., 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). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla... and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "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 Secretary." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 under which the All is to evaluate a claim:
The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 474 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the All need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which 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) and 416.920a(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. Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. §§ 404.1520a(e)(3), 416.920a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) failure to discuss all of Claimant's alleged impairments, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 1-2; (2) failure to discuss specific pieces of evidence, id. at 2-6; (3) improperly considering Claimant's failure to adhere to the recommended course of treatment where he had an excuse for being noncompliant, id. at 2; (4) failure to fully consider statements made by a third-party witness, id. at 4; (5) improper consideration of pre-onset effects of Claimant's obesity, id. at 5; (6) improper consideration of medical opinion evidence, id. at 5-6; (7) failure to account for Claimant's medication side effects when making the credibility determination, id. at 6; and (8) improper reliance on VE testimony, id.
IV. FACTUAL HISTORY
A. ALJ's Findings
Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 20). Next, the ALJ determined that Claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine; depression/bipolar disorder; anxiety/post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"); personality disorder; obesity; asthma; and degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees. Id. The ALJ determined that Claimant did not suffer from any non-severe impairments. See id. At step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 21-22). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild restrictions in his activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning and concentration, persistence and pace, with no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 21).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the AU assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform sedentary work with the following additional limitations:
[Claimant ] can occasionally carry 20 pounds; frequently carry 10 pounds; sit up to six hours in an eight-hour day; and stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour day. [Claimant] can occasionally use foot controls with the bilateral lower extremities; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally balance and stoop; frequently kneel; and never crawl. He should avoid extremes of cold or heat; avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, and gases; and avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.
(R. 22). The All also identified the following non-exertional limitations: simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; apply common sense and understanding to carry out oral, written, and diagrammatic instructions; non-production pace work; and frequent, but not constant, contact with the public. (R. 22-23). In making this assessment, the All found Claimant's statements about his limitations not fully credible. (R. 23-27). At step four, the All concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as an insurance checker and a customer service representative. (R. 27). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience ...