United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
ANGELA H. SUTTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ROBERT B. JONES, Jr., Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-27, DE-33] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Plaintiff Angela H. Sutton ("Plaintiff') filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. [DE-6]. Plaintiff has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings requesting the court reverse Defendant's administrative decision or in the alternative remand the matter for a new hearing. [DE-27]. Defendant has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE-33] to which Plaintiff has responded [DE-39] and Defendant has replied. [DE-40]. 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 ordered that Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
On or about September 12, 2011, Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, DIB and supplemental security income ("SSI") alleging disability beginning October 3, 2010. (R. 179, 187). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, on April 27, 2012, and upon reconsideration, on October 10, 2012. (R. 105, 113, 117, 121). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on March 15, 2013, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 32, 147, 177). On June 20, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (R. 8). On August 28, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALI's decision. (R. 1). On October 24, 2013, Plaintiff timely filed a complaint 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.P.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 P.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.P.R. §§ 404.1520, 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 P.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 P.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. §§ 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).
In this case, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly evaluating medical opinion evidence under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiffs impairments under Listing 11.04 for cerebrovascular accident ("CVA"). Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings [DE-28] ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 9-12.
IV. FACTUAL ...