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Beatty v. Berryhill

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

February 8, 2017

FREDDIE BEATTY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KIMBERLY A. SWANK United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court on its own motion. Pursuant to Rule 60(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the clerk is directed to file the attached Memorandum & Recommendation to correct a clerical error on page two of the Memorandum & Recommendation submitted by the undersigned and entered on the docket on January 27, 2017 [DE #20].

         MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION (Corrected)

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Freddie Beatty (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. 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, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #16] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #18] be denied, and that the Commissioner's decision be remanded for further proceedings.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on March 5, 2012 (R. 20), alleging disability beginning October 1, 2011. (R. 20.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 56-57, 76-77, 119-21.) On February 11, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Judge Marcus Christ (“ALJ”), who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 19, 2014. (R. 20, 27.) On May 11, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). “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, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since October 1, 2011, and that he meets the insured status requirements through September 30, 2014. (R. 22.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: “lumbar disc degeneration.” (Id.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and a hernia. (R. 23.) However, at step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's 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. 23.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had the ability to perform medium work with the following limitations:

The claimant can frequently climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps and stairs, and can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Further, the claimant can frequently push and pull.

(R. 23.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms not fully credible. (R. 24.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a “janitor, truck driver, and warehouse worker.” (R. 26.)

         IV. Plaintiff's Contentions

         Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits on three grounds. Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in failing to find that his diabetes is a severe impairment. Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ conducted a flawed RFC assessment by improperly weighing the opinion of the state agency medical consultants who conducted a consultative examination ...


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