United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOE L. WEBSTER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Tangela Cooper Eller, seeks review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for social security disability benefits. The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits in October of 2010 alleging a disability onset date of October 10, 2009, later amended to June 1, 2009. (Tr. 17, 136-38.) The application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. ( Id. at 60-84.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 88-89.) At the February 7, 2013 hearing were Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE"). ( Id. at 30-59.) On March 26, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. ( Id. at 17-29.) On April 24, 2014 the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. ( Id. at 1-4.)
II. STANDARD FOR REVIEW
The scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Review is limited to determining if there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The issue before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Id.
III. THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION
The ALJ followed the well-established five-step sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). Here, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended onset date of June 1, 2009. ( Id. at 19.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff suffered from a single severe impairment, fibromyalgia. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in Appendix 1. ( Id. ) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 23.) At step five, the ALJ determined that, given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that Plaintiff could perform, such as mail clerk/sorter, office helper, and folder. ( Id. at 24.) Consequently, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date (June 1, 2009) through the date of the decision (March 26, 2013.). (Tr. 24-25.)
Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC based on the ALJ's evaluation of the evidence, including Plaintiff's testimony and the findings of treating and examining health care providers. ( Id. at 20-23.) Based on the evidence as a whole, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of light work. ( Id. at 20.) Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work (lifting and carrying twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and standing, walking, and sitting six hours during an eight hour work day), except that she: (1) could only frequently handle and finger bilaterally, (2) could only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl, (3) could have no concentrated exposure to hazards like moving machinery or unprotected heights, and (4) should be limited to unskilled activity. ( Id. )
Plaintiff makes three arguments. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to follow Social Security Ruling 12-2p in evaluating her severe fibromyalgia. (Docket Entry 10 at 3.) Second, she contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC finding. ( Id. ) Third, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to present a proper hypothetical question to the VE. ( Id. ) For the following reasons, the undersigned concludes that remand is in order.
A. SSR 12-2p and Fibromyalgia
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to address fibromyalgia at every step of the process, particularly at step three. (Docket Entry 10 at 3.) She contends that though the ALJ found at step two that Plaintiff's fibromyalgia was severe, the ALJ never mentioned SSR 12-2p in his decision, nor evaluated Plaintiff in light of the Ruling. ( Id. )
To evaluate this argument, an understanding of the nature of fibromyalgia, and of SSR 12-2p, is necessary. Regarding the ...