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Wade v. Berryhill

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

February 10, 2017

WILLIAM H. WADE, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIMBERLY A. SWANK United States Magistrate Judge

         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. William H. Wade, Jr. (“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”). 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 #23] be denied, and the Commissioner's decision be remanded for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for a period of disability and DIB on March 6, 2012, and for SSI on March 14, 2012, alleging disability beginning April 30, 2010. (R. 14, 196-204.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 88-89, 124-25, 153-57.) On April 24, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Edward Seery (“ALJ”), who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 30, 2014. (R. 14, 24.) On July 22, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 3-5.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


          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 uses 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 April 30, 2010, and that he meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016. (R. 16.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obesity, coronary artery disease with stenting, degenerative disc disease, forearm fracture with bilateral cubital tunnel syndrome and headaches.” (Id.) The ALJ did not identify any non-severe impairments. (Id.) 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. (Id.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he must avoid overhead reaching; he could frequently but not continuously handle and finger; he must change position from sitting to standing every 40 minutes; he is limited to performing simple, routine and repetitive type tasks; and he could have occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors and the public.

(R. 18.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms, and statements made by his sister in a Third Party Function Report, not fully credible. (R. 19.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 22.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could make “a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy” and listed electronics worker, remnant sorter, and agricultural produce sorter as potential occupations. (R. 23.)

         IV. ...

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