United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
STEVEN G. BEST, Plaintiff/Claimant,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT B. JONES, Jr., Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-23, DE-27] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Steven G. Best ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Claimant responded to Defendant's motion [DE-30], and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum and Recommendation.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on July 20, 2010, alleging disability beginning July 9, 2009. (R. 26, 173-81). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 26, 87-111). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on December 28, 2011, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and Claimant's mother and a vocational expert appeared and testified. (R. 26, 40-86). On April 17, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 26-39). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 21-22), and submitted additional evidence as part of the request (R. 284-92, 393-423). After reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on August 27, 2013. (R. 1-7). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., 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). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla... and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "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 v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520:
The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chafer, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which 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 "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant contends the ALJ erred by (1) failing to adequately consider Claimant's approval for long term disability benefits by the state; (2) improperly dismissing the opinions of Claimant's treating physicians; (3) improperly evaluating Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (4) improperly evaluating Claimant's credibility. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-24] at 6-13.
IV. FACTUAL ...