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-24, DE-31] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Ivan Pittman ("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 and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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 denying Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, allowing 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 and DIB on January 21, 2010, alleging disability beginning May 19, 2009. (R. 26, 177-80). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 26, 80-97, 98-117). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge Edward Bowling ("the AU") was held on November 29, 2011, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 44-79). On March 2, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 23-43). On May 1, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-6). 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 [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). 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 under which the ALJ 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, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). 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). 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). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) failure to discuss the opinion of Dr. Nancy Henderson-Hines, one of Claimant's treating physicians, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") [DE-25] at 10-11; and (2) improper evaluation of the opinion of Dr. John P. Maim, another of Claimant's treating physicians, Id. at 11-14.
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 but that he had engaged in substantial gainful activity between May 19, 2009 and October 31, 2009. (R. 28). Next, the AU determined that Claimant had the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome, more to the right; obstructive sleep apnea; degenerative joint disease of the knees bilaterally; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine; minimal obstructive lung disease; mild obesity; hypertension; bipolar disorder; and depression and anxiety. (R. 28-29). The AU also determined that Claimant suffered from the following non-severe impairments: headaches; gout attacks; and neck and back pain. (R. 29). 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. 29-30). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the AU 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. 29).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the AU assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work with the following additional limitations: standing/walking/sitting 6 hours; frequent, but not constant, upper extremity for gross and fine manipulation; avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dusts, and gases and hazards; he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, in that he can apply common sense understanding to carry out oral and diagrammatic instructions; and he should have no more than occasional contact with the public and co-workers.
(R. 30). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about his limitations not fully credible. (R. 30-36). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a carpet cleaner and carpet installer. (R. 36). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the All determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to ...