United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOE L. WEBSTER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Marla Fletcher, has brought this action to obtain 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 protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 28, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of December 15, 2009, which was later amended to October 18, 2010. (Tr. 15, 37, 160, 244.) The application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. ( Id. at 109-112, 116-119.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 7.) At the November 20, 2012 hearing were Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE"). ( Id. at 34.) On February 11, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. ( Id. at 15-29.) On March 6, 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 October 18, 2010. (Tr. at 17.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine; degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; and panic disorder. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to, one listed in Appendix 1. ( Id. at 19.) The ALJ reached the fourth step of the sequence, at which point she determined that Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as a ticketer as it is actually and generally performed. ( Id. at 27.) The ALJ made alternative step five findings and concluded that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that Plaintiff could perform, such as industrial cleaner, laundry checker, and a self-service laundromat attendant. ( Id. at 28.) Consequently, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from the amended alleged onset date (October 18, 2010) through the date of the decision (February 11, 2013.). ( Id. at 28.)
Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC based on an evaluation of the evidence, including Plaintiff's testimony and the findings of treating and examining health care providers. ( Id. at 22-26.) Based on the evidence as a whole, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of medium work. ( Id. at 22.) Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform medium work, except that she (1) could frequently climb, kneel, and crawl, and she could occasionally stoop and crouch; (2) must avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous conditions; (3) had the mental RFC to perform simple, routine tasks, follow simple, short instructions; make simple, work-related decisions; and adapt to a few workplace changes; (4) could perform work at a fixed production rate or pace; and (5) could have only occasional interaction with the general public. ( Id. )
Plaintiff makes three arguments. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to point to substantial evidence in support of her RFC findings. (Docket Entry 10 at 3.) Second, she contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision at step three that she does not meet the requirements of Listing 1.02A. ( Id. ) Third, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ violated Social Security Rulings 96-8p and 96-9p with respect to her ability to ambulate ( Id. ) For the following reasons, the undersigned concludes that remand is in order.
A. The ALJ's RFC Determination Is Not Supported By Substantial Evidence.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to point to substantial evidence in support of her RFC findings. (Docket Entry 10 at 4-10.) The ALJ is charged with the ultimate 404.1527(e)(2). The RFC is based on all of the relevant evidence, including medical records, medical source opinions, daily activities, and subjective allegations and descriptions of
Here, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform a limited range of medium work. (Tr. 22.) Medium work "involves lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds" and requires an individual to be on her feet for up to six hours during an eight-hour workday. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)-(c); SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5. "Occasionally" is defined as up to 1/3 of a workday, while "frequently" is defined as 1/3 to 2/3 of a workday. SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5-6. To understand why the ALJ has not pointed to ...