United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MICHAEL A. MILES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings (DE 22, 26). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., issued a memorandum and recommendation ("M&R") (DE 29), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and uphold defendant's final decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R, and the time for response has passed. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons stated more specifically below, the court adopts the M&R, plaintiff's motion is denied, and defendant's motion is granted.
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 9, 2010, alleging disability beginning October 28, 2009. This application was denied initially on January 10, 2011, and upon reconsideration on May 19, 2011. On June 1, 2012, hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who determined that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated July 26, 2012. The appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review on August 21, 2013. On November 26, 2013, the appeals council granted plaintiff an additional 60 days to file a civil action. Complaint was filed December 31, 2013.
A. Standard of Review
The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ "if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but... less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).
To assist it in its review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits, the court may "designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings... and to submit... proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings]." See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations, and the court "shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." Id. § 636(b)(1). Absent a specific and timely filed objection, the court reviews only for "clear error, " and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, "the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 28, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cognitive disorder, degenerative joint disease, and depression. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments, taken alone or in combination, were not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the impairments in the regulations. In reaching the step three conclusion, the ALJ specifically addressed whether plaintiff's mental impairments met or medically equaled the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.05.
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work with the following restrictions: performance of simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a non-production or non-fast paced work environment with deadlines and quotas, and only occasional public interaction. In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments could not reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms and that plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms were not credible. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not capable of performing the requirements of his past relevant work. However, at step five, upon considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), as ...