United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-22, DE-26] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Plaintiff Thomas Edward Rizor, Jr. ("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 granting Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, denying Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and remanding this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on May 11, 2012, alleging disability beginning April 22, 2012. (R. 11, 143.) His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 62, 77-78.) A hearing before Administrative Law Judge McArthur Allen ("the ALJ") was held on June 12, 2013, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 31-49.) On July 7, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 8-30.) On October 10, 2013, 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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq., ("Act") 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). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). "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, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that 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 Aspecial technique." Id . § 404.1520a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant alleges the following: (1) that the ALJ erred in determining that Claimant's mental impairments failed to meet or medically equal Listings 12.04 and 12.06 (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 11-15); and (2) that the ALJ improperly assessed Claimant's RFC (Pl.'s Mem. at 15-17).
I. 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. (R. 13.) Next, the ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: oro-mandibular dystonia, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and depression. (R. 13-14.) The ALJ also concluded that Claimant suffered from the non-severe impairment of possible dissociative episodes/absence seizures. ( Id .) At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant's 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. 14-15.) Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild limitations in his activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning and concentration, persistence and pace, and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (R. 15.)
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work with the following additional limitations:
The claimant must avoid hazardous machinery and is limited to work requiring only simple, routine, repetitive tasks. He can have only occasional contact with co-workers and the general public, and is limited to only occasional communication with the ...