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-27] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Chancelor Johnson ("Claimant") 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 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, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be upheld.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on March 31, 2010, alleging disability beginning March 11, 2010. (R. 14, 65, 143-49). The claim was denied initially (R. 14, 58-65, 80-83) and upon reconsideration (R. 14, 66-79, 85-88). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge James Myles ("ALJ") was held on October 11, 2011, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 31-57). On December 9, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 11-30). On May 15, 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 classify Claimant's knee condition as a "severe" impairment, (2) failure to properly evaluate Claimant's 20% Veteran Affairs ("VA") disability rating for his knee impairment, and (3) improper assessment of Claimant's credibility. Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") [DE-25] at 4-6.
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. (R. 25-26). At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 16). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairment of a back injury. Id. The ALJ also found Claimant had a non-severe impairment of depression. Id. However, 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. 17). Applying the techniques prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild restrictions in his activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence or pace with no episodes of decompensation. (R. 16).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to "lift and carry up to 50 pounds occasionally and up to 25 pounds frequently, with no forceful pushing or pulling with the upper extremities." (R. 17). The ALJ also limited Claimant to "performance of simple, routine, repetitive tasks that are routine in nature with occasional interpersonal contact." Id. In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about his limitations not fully credible. (R. 21). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a merchandiser, truck driver, forklift operator, and night supervisor. (R. 24, 48-49). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 24-25).
B. Claimant's Testimony at the Administrative Hearing
At the time of Claimant's administrative hearing, Claimant was 58 years old, unemployed, and living with his adult daughter. (R. 36, 38). Claimant is a high school graduate with some college course work. (R. 36). Claimant was last employed with Healy Wholesale Company for approximately four years, where his duties included merchandising and truck driving. (R. 39, 48-49, 165-166, 186). Product merchandisers deliver the product and also set up displays in individual stores. (R. 39). On average, Claimant was lifting pallets of product ranging ...