United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern 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-25, -29] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Karen Home ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application 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, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied and Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, upholding the final decision of the Commissioner.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on April 23, 2010, alleging disability beginning May 8, 2009. (R. 9, 208-14). Her claims were denied initially on September 21, 2010, and upon reconsideration on January 7, 2011. (R. 73-87, 103, 105-21). On January 23, 2012, Claimant amended her onset date to March 1, 2010, but later withdrew the amendment. (R. 70, 225). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge Christopher Willis ("ALJ") was held on January 26, 2012, at which Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified and Claimant's husband appeared but did not testify. (R. 26-72). A vocational expert ("VE") appeared by telephone and testified. (R. 61-72). On April 18, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 6-20). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and submitted additional evidence as part of her request. (R. 203-07). On June 24, 2013, after reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-5). 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. Apfol, 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 P.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 P.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 P.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 ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility and Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). Pl.'s Mem. [DE-26] at 6-8.
IV. FACTUAL ...