United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
ANGELA E. THRASHER, 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 24, 30). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Robert T. Numbers, II, issued a memorandum and recommendation ("M&R"), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and affirm defendant's decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R, and the deadline for defendant's response has passed. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court rejects the recommendation in the M&R and remands to the defendant for further proceedings.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on September 13, 2010, alleging disability beginning September 9, 2010. This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held on August 14, 2012, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who determined that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated August 28, 2012. After the appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff commenced the instant action, seeking reversal of defendant's final decision, or, in the alternative, remand to defendant for further proceedings.
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 September 9, 2010. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: scoliosis status/post spinal fusion; degenerative disc disease; mood disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments were not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the impairments in the regulations.
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, except that she can only occasionally perform postural activities; never climb, kneel or crawl; with no ongoing interaction with the general public. In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff's statements about the severity of her symptoms not fully credible to the extent they were inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC assessment. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not capable of performing any past relevant ...