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Nelson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

February 6, 2017

MARY ELIZABETH NELSON, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          Robert B. Jones Jr. United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-14, -19] pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Claimant Mary Elizabeth Nelson ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the matter be remanded to the Commissioner.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on April 9, 2012, alleging disability beginning March 24, 2012. (R. 15, 174-75). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 15, 72-100). On informal remand, it was determined that the medium residual functional capacity ("RFC") given at the reconsideration level was not restrictive enough in light of Claimant's limitations and that the light RFC given at the initial review level was more appropriate, however, the claim was still denied. (R. 101-04). A hearing before the ALJ was held on April 1, 2014, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 15, 33-71). On June 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 12-32). On November 30, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-5). Claimant then 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.3dl71, 176(4thCir.2001)(quoting Craig v. Chater, 76F3d585, 589(4thCir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.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 F.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.F.R. § 404.1520 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 F.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. Chater, 65 F.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.F.R. § 404.1520a(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). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 17). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, including status-post arthroscopy x3 on the left; hypertension; obesity; major depressive disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder. Id. However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 17-20). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild restrictions in activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace, with no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 18-19).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant has the ability to perform light work[1] with the following limitations: lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand, walk or sit at least six hours out of an eight-hour workday with a "sit/stand" option in which she can switch positions every 30 minutes; occasionally push and pull with the bilateral lower extremities; frequently stoop; occasionally balance, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and heights; perform no more than simple, repetitive, routine tasks; maintain attention or concentration for two-hour blocks of time; occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public; and work in a low stress environment, which means no fast-paced production work and performing only simple work-related decisions with few or no changes in the work setting. (R. 20-26). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not entirely credible. (R. 21). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant was unable to ...


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