United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
KATHERINE E. RODGERS, 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-22, DE-26] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Katherine E. Rodgers ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her 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, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be upheld.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on September 29, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 2, 2008. (R. 15, 146-52). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 15, 74-84, 85-96). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge McArthur Allen ("ALJ") was held on March 20, 2012, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 34-68). On May 4, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 12-29). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 30-3 3), and submitted additional evidence as part of her request (R. 5, 269-73). After reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on March 18, 2013. (R. 1-6). 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. Chater, 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, under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:
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. Chater, 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." d.§ 404.1520a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant alleges that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to give Claimant's Veteran's Affairs ("VA") disability rating substantial weight and (2) failing to mention all of Claimant's global assessment of functioning ("GAF") scores and evaluate those scores as medical opinions. Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") [DE-23] at 13-18.
IV. FACTUAL HISTORY
A. 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 Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 17). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe combination of impairments: depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Id. The ALJ also found Claimant had a nonsevere impairment(s) of gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD") and right knee pain. (R. 18). Additionally, the ALJ found that Claimant had non-medically determinable impairments of hip and back pain. Id. However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these 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. Id. Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild limitations in her activities of daily living, and moderate difficulties in social functioning, concentration, persistence or pace. (R. 19). Further, the ALJ found that Claimant has experienced one to two episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. Id.
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work with the following limitations: avoiding hazardous machinery and exposure to heights. (R. 20). The ALJ also identified the following non-exertional limitations: Claimant requires simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a low-production and low-stress environment, no complex decision-making, constant change, or dealing with crisis situations, no contact with the general public and only frequent but not constant contact with coworkers. Id. In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not fully credible. (R. 20-23).
At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a unit supply specialist and a general office clerk. (R. 24). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other ...