United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
SHAUNA P. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
JAMES E. GATES, Magistrate Judge.
In this action, plaintiff Shauna P. Williams ("plaintiff" or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that she is not disabled. The case is before the court on the respective parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. (D.E. 33, 35). The motions have been fully briefed. The motions were referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (D.E. 37). For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that the Commissioner's motion be allowed, plaintiff's motion be denied, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.
A. Case History
Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on 27 August 2010, alleging an amended disability onset date of 15 November 2009. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 12, 33, 180-81. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was timely filed. Tr. 12. On 19 July 2012, a video hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), at which plaintiff, plaintiff's father, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 29-61. In a written decision dated 10 August 2012, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI. Tr. 12-24. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 8. The Appeals Council admitted additional evidence (Tr. 793-877),  but on 22 October 2013 denied the request for review (Tr. 1-7). At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review on 16 December 2013, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). ( See In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") Mot. (D.E. 1); Order Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E. 5); Compl. (D.E. 6)).
B. Standards for Disability
The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as the inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). "[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide the following five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:
(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled....
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 416.909, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled....
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in [20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1] ["Listings"] and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled....
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity ["RFC"] and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled....
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your [RFC] and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled....
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(iv).
The burden of proof and production rests with the claimant during the first four steps of the analysis. Pass, 65 F.3d at 1203. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to show that alternative work is available for the claimant in the national economy. Id.
In the case of multiple impairments, the Regulations require that the ALJ "consider the combined effect of all of [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.923. If a medically severe combination of impairments is found, the combined impact of those impairments must be considered throughout the disability determination process. Id.
C. Findings of the ALJ
Plaintiff was 45 years old on the date she filed her application for SSI and 47 years old on the date of the administrative hearing. See Tr. 22. The ALJ found that she has a limited education. Tr. 22 ¶ 8; see also Tr. 35 (plaintiff's testimony that she completed eighth grade); 20 C.F.R. § 416.964(b)(3) (defining limited education generally as the seventh through eleventh grade level of formal education). The ALJ further found that plaintiff had past relevant work as a cosmetologist. Tr. 22 ¶ 5.
Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of her application. Tr. 14 ¶ 1. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: degenerative disc disease, hepatitis C, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, depression, and rule out cognitive disorder NOS. Tr. 14 ¶ 2. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the Listings. Tr. 14 ¶ 3.
The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work-that is, to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and to stand, walk, and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day. Tr. 16 ¶ 5; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). She further found that plaintiff was subject to the following limitations:
[C]laimant could perform no more than frequent stooping and frequent handling with her left upper extremity; furthermore, the claimant was able to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a non-production work environment with few workplace changes and occasional interaction with the general public and co-workers.
Tr. 16-17 ¶ 4.
Based on her determination of plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a cosmetologist. Tr. 22 ¶ 5. At step five, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the vocational expert and found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the occupations of housekeeper and ...