United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
NANETTE G. SUTTON, 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-32, -34] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Nanette G. Sutton ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1183(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. Claimant responded to Defendant's motion [DE-36], and the time for filing a reply has expired. Accordingly, 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 SSI on October 24, 2006, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2003. (R. 17, 146-48, 167, 269). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 17, 75-76). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") D. Burgess Stalley was held on May 21, 2009, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 17, 64-73). At the conclusion of the hearing the ALJ indicated he would order mental and physical consultative examinations due to lack of medical evidence in the file. (R. 71). The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on September 15, 2009. (R. 17, 30-63). On September 21, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for SSI benefits. (R. 17-29). On March 4, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-6). On April 29, 2011, Claimant filed a case in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. (R. 329-30). On December 21, 2011, the court allowed the Commissioner's unopposed request to remand the case for further administrative proceedings. (R. 332).
On September 19, 2012, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the September 21, 2009 final decision and remanding the case to an ALJ for resolution of several issues. (R. 335-37). On August 19, 2013, ALJ Odell Grooms held a hearing, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a VE appeared and testified. (R. 268, 278-326). On October 25, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for SSI benefits. (R. 268-77). The Appeals Council did not initiate review of the claim, Pl.'s Mem. [DE-33] at 2, and Claimant then filed a case 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. § 416.920 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. 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.P.R.§ 416.920a(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. § 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 416.920a(e)(3).
In this case, Claimant contends the ALJ erred (1) in determining Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to do medium work without consideration of the prior ALJ's determination that Claimant had the capacity to do only sedentary work, and (2) in failing to weigh the opinion of Dr. Ahmed, a consultative examiner who limited Claimant to sedentary work. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-33] at 8-10, Pl.'s Resp. [DE-36] at 1-3.
IV. FACTUAL ...