United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
GEORGE G. MONROE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings (DE 28, 33). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates issued a memorandum and recommendation ("M&R"), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and affirm defendant's final decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R and the response time has expired. 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 applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning December 8, 2006. On March 12, 2010, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied plaintiff's applications. On March 21, 2011, the appeals council vacated the 2010 decision and remanded the case for issuance of a new decision, upon further administrative record. A supplemental hearing was held on November 29, 2011, before a new ALJ, who determined that plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period in a decision dated February 7, 2012. The appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review on January 20, 2013, and plaintiff filed the instant action on April 22, 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 or her] 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 December 8, 2006, the date of alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: sleep apnea, narcolepsy, myalgias, uveitis, anxiety, and mood disorder. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments were not severe enough 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 light work, except that he should climb stairs or ramps occasionally; never climb ropes or ladders; be limited to occasional bending, balancing, stooping, crawling, kneeling, or crouching; avoid hazardous machinery and concentrated exposure to fumes; work only in a well-lit environment; and be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff's statements about plaintiff's limitations not fully credible. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not capable of performing any past relevant work. At step five, upon considering testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff is capable of performing.
In his objections, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by not giving weight to findings made in the 2010 decision regarding plaintiff's severe impairments. Contrary to plaintiff's argument, however, the ALJ was not required to give weight to the findings made in the 2010 decision, because it was vacated and not the final agency decision of the Commissioner. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 478 (4th Cir. 1999) (recognizing "legitimate expectations of claimants and, indeed, society at large that final agency adjudications should carry considerable weight"); Acquiescence Ruling 00-1(4), 65 FR 1936-01 (Jan. 12, 2000) (examining circumstances under which the Commissioner must consider "a finding of a claimant's residual functional capacity or other finding ...