United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
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-12, -14] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Pamela Batson ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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 protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on April 24, 2008, alleging disability beginning February 15, 2008. (R. 11, 113-17). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 11, 53-54). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Karen A. Cornick was held on August 17, 2010, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 11, 24-52). On September 3, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 8-23). On December 20, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-6). Claimant then filed a case in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision, and on May 29, 2013, the court granted Claimant's motion for judgment on the pleadings and remanded the case to the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) because the ALJ failed to sufficiently explain her reasons for giving the opinion of Claimant's treating physician little weight. (R. 465-76).
On July 1, 2013, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the final decision of the Commissioner and remanding the case to an ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court. (R. 477-81). On November 13, 2013, ALJ Richard L. Vogel held a hearing, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a VE appeared and testified. (R. 403, 417-42). On January 2, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 400-16). Claimant did not file written exceptions to the ALJ's decision denying benefits, and the Appeals Council did not initiate review of the decision on its own motion. Def.'sMem. [DE-15]at2. Claimant then filed this case 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.3dl71, 176 (4thCir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76F.3d585, 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 impairments): 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 (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 light work, and (2) in failing to properly analyze the opinions of Claimant's treating physician. PL's Mem. [DE-13] at 10-15.
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 had not engaged in substantial gainful employment from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. (R. 405). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, arthritis, and status post hand surgeries. (R. 406). The ALJ also found Claimant had the nonsevere impairment of anxiety. 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. (R. 406-07). Applying the special technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild restrictions in her activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence and pace, with no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (R. 406).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform medium work with only occasional fingering and frequent handling. (R. 407-10). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not fully credible. (R. 409). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant was capable of performing her past relevant work as a dining room attendant, order picker, and hospital cleaner. (R. 410).
B. Claimant's Testimony at the Administrative Hearing
At the time of the November 13, 2013 administrative hearing, Claimant was 56 years old and married with no children at home. (R. 419-20). Claimant has a ninth-grade education. (R. 420). She was unemployed and the family received income and insurance from her husband's job as a truck driver. Id. Claimant last worked as a housekeeper in a hospital for six years. (R. 421-22). Her duties included mopping and scrubbing rooms, which required moving furniture. (R. 422). Claimant quit working in 2008 after her mother died and the associated trauma caused Claimant's pain and swelling due to fibromyalgia to worsen. (R. 421, 435). Prior to working as a cleaner, Claimant worked for three years as a stocker at a pharmaceutical shipping company, where her duties included picking up and labeling boxes and placing them on a conveyor belt. (R. 422). She performed the job standing and lifted as much as 60 to 70 pounds with help. (R. 423). Prior to working as a stocker, Claimant worked part-time in a school cafeteria, where her duties included washing dishes, cleaning, some food preparation, and serving the children. (R. 423).
Claimant explained the medical conditions supporting her disability claim and her inability to work full-time. Claimant has had two surgeries on each hand. (R. 424, 437). While working Claimant experienced pain and swelling in her hands and had difficulty gripping and picking up items. (R. 425). Her hands have gotten worse over time so that she cannot cook or clean at home, and her husband does most of the cleaning and either cooks or brings food home. (R. 425-26). Claimant's cousin also comes over to help her with cleaning. (R. 426). Claimant drives very little because it is difficult for her to grasp and hold the steering wheel, and she sometimes drops items. (R. 426-28). She requires help from her husband buttoning or ...