United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 24, 26). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., issued a memorandum and recommendation ("M&R"), (DE 29), which recommended that this court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and that the final decision by defendant be affirmed. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R, (DE 30), and defendant's response time has expired. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court adopts the M&R and grants defendant's motion.
Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on July 29, 2010, alleging disability beginning on November 7, 2009. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who denied plaintiff's application on November 17, 2011. The appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 8, 2013. Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the final administrative decision on April 16, 2013. On July 22, 2014, the magistrate judge issued the M&R.
A. Standard of Review
This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In conducting this review, 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 "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation 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). In reviewing whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's determination, the court must 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 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589). "Ultimately, it is the duty of the administrative law judge reviewing the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.1990).
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]." 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. This five-step process 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, 653 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. In step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 7, 2009. (Tr. 34). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe medical impairments: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, hypertension with left atrial enlargement, asthma, mood disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and kidney stones. Id . At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's severe impairments were not enough, individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in the regulations. (Tr. 35).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "sedentary work, " subject to the following restrictions: she can only stand short periods and walk short distances, and she would require a cane for anything further; she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs; she can occasionally stoop, and frequently perform all other postural activities; she needs to avoid even moderate exposure to pulmonary irritants or work hazards; she must have restroom access in the work area; she is limited to simple, repetitive tasks in a routine, non-production work environment; and she can have only occasional interpersonal contact with others. (Tr. 37). In making this determination, the ALJ found plaintiff's statements about the severity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms not wholly credible. (Tr. 37-38). At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 41). At step five, upon consideration of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, in addition to the testimony of plaintiff's vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ concluded ...