United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings (DE 21, 23). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Swank issued a memorandum and recommendation ("M&R") (DE 26), wherein it is recommended that the court grant plaintiff's motion, deny defendant's motion, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. Defendant timely filed objections to the M&R, and plaintiff responded. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court adopts the recommendation of the magistrate judge, albeit partially on different grounds.
Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on June 21, 2010, alleging disability beginning May 11, 2004. This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held on November 3, 2011, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who determined that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated December 14, 2011. The appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 30, 2013. Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis which was granted July 3, 2013, and the clerk filed plaintiff's complaint the same day.
A. Standard of Review
The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ "if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence is... such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but... less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze , 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).
To assist it in its review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits, the court may "designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings... and to submit... proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings]." See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations, and the court "shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." Id . § 636(b)(1). Absent a specific and timely filed objection, the court reviews only for "clear error, " and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co. , 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis , 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, "the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater , 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 11, 2004, through the date he was last insured on December 31, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairment: low back pain with myofascial component. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that this impairment was not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the impairments in the regulations. Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work with no additional limitations or restrictions. In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms not fully credible. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a tractor trailer driver as actually and generally performed.
The magistrate judge determined that the case must be remanded because (1) it was not clear whether the ALJ considered certain work restrictions imposed by plaintiff's physician, Dr. Michael Gwinn, or evaluated Dr. Gwinn's ...