United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings (DE 23, 27). 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"), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and that the final decision by defendant be affirmed. Plaintiff timely filed an objection to the M&R, and defendant has 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.
Plaintiff filed an application for period of disability and disability insurance benefits on July 6, 2009, alleging disability beginning August 20, 2004. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held on December 7, 2011, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who determined that plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period in a decision dated January 9, 2012. The appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 29, 2013, and plaintiff filed the instant action on June 27, 2013.
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). The court does not perform a de novo review where a party makes only "general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations." Orpiano v. Johnson , 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). 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 from August 20, 2004, the date of alleged disability, to the date she was last insured on December 31, 2007. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: residuals of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks and headaches. The ALJ also found plaintiff had non-severe impairments including fibrocystic breast disorder, oligomenorrhea, neuropathy, Raynaud's syndrome, and arthropathy. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations. Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with the following restrictions:
[T]he claimant was able to lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and lesser amounts frequently, sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day, and stand and walk occasionally, except she was limited to occasionally performing postural movements. Additionally, the claimant had to avoid all ...