United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Carolyn Lawrence ("Plaintiff") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application 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 that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-26] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-28] be granted, and the final decision of the Commissioner be upheld.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on June 3, 2010 (Tr. 67, 84), alleging disability beginning September 24, 2008 (Tr. 150). The application for a period of disability and DIB was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (Tr. 67, 84, 101-02.) On May 18, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Katherine D. Wisz ("ALJ"), who issued an unfavorable ruling on August 7, 2012. (Tr. 26, 32.) On November 7, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. Standard of Review
The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits 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).
II. Disability Determination
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 Aspecial 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)).
III. ALJ's Findings
Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff "not disabled" as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since September 24, 2008. (Tr. 13.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "obesity; asthma; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"); sleep apnea; disc herniation and osteophyte formation of the lumbar spine; congestive heart failure; depression." (Id. ) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's skin conditions and history of skin cancer were non-severe impairments. (Tr. 13-14.) However, at step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff'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. (Tr. 14-16.)
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and found that Plaintiff had the ability to perform a limited range of light work. The ALJ stated:
Function by function, the claimant can occasionally lift 20 pounds and frequently lift 10 pounds. She can stand and walk 6 hours, and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gasses, and other pulmonary irritants. She can ...