United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
CARRIE V. MOORE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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. Carrie V. Moore 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, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). 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 #24] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #30] be denied, and the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on August 18, 2010, alleging disability beginning July 3, 2009. (Tr. 23.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (Tr. 23.) On April 26, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Robert Phares ("ALJ"), who issued an unfavorable ruling on July 10, 2012. (Tr. 23-34.) On October 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) 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 "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and 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. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(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), 416.920a(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 July 3, 2009. (Tr. 25.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "depressive disorder, left foot cellulitis, and borderline intellectual functioning." (Id. ) 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. 26-28.)
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 medium work:
Function by function, the claimant is capable of lifting and carrying 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, and can sit, stand, or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, the claimant is restricted to work involving only simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with only occasional contact with the general public and coworkers. In addition, she is unable to perform high stress jobs.
(Tr. 28.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of her symptoms not fully credible. (Tr. 29.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has no past relevant work. At step five, upon considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 33.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability during the relevant time period.
IV. Plaintiff's Contentions
Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits on a number of grounds. Plaintiff first contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 12.05 or Listing 12.04. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pleadings [DE #25] at 11-23.). Next, Plaintiff asserts that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC determination. (Id. at 23-26.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the vocational expert's testimony does not support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 26-27.)
The burden of proof at step three is on the claimant to show that she meets or equals all the criteria of a listing. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31 (4th Cir. 1992). "For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). If an impairment does not meet the criteria of a listing, it may nevertheless medically equal the criteria. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(c)(5), 416.925(c)(5). To establish medical equivalence, a claimant must "present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria" for that listing. Zebley, 493 U.S. at 531. "The [ALJ]... is responsible for deciding... whether a listing is met or equaled." SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3 (Jul. ...