United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
KRISTIN L. BURRIS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause conies before the Court on cross-motions for judgment
on the pleadings. A hearing was held on the matters before
the undersigned on January 12, 2017, at Elizabeth City, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of
the Commissioner is remanded for further proceedings.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying her claim for supplemental security
income (SSI) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act
and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the
Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed for SSI and DIB on May
1, 2012, alleging disability since April 23, 2012. Plaintiff
amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2013. After
initial denials, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (ALJ) who issued an unfavorable ruling. The
decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review of
the Commissioner's decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
[twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four,
but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of
the process the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
one, if the Social Security Administration determines that
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks
whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination
of impairments. If the claimant has a severe impairment, it
is compared at step three to those in the Listing of
Impairments ("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or
medically equals a Listing, disability is conclusively
presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual
functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine if the
claimant can perform his past relevant work. If so, the claim
is denied. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work,
then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to
show that the claimant, based on his age, education, work
experience, and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful
work. If the claimant cannot perform other work, then he is
found to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §
one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since her alleged onset date. Plaintiffs multilevel
degenerative disc disease, right bundle branch block, carpal
tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, neuralgia, and chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease were considered severe
impairments at step two but were not found alone or in
combination to meet or equal a Listing at step three. The ALJ
concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work
with exertional limitations. The ALJ found that plaintiff
could return to her past relevant work as a nursery school
attendant as that work is generally performed. Thus, the ALJ
determined that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of
his decision, September 5, 2014.
issue in this case is whether the ALJ's finding that
plaintiff had the RFC to perform her past relevant work is
supported by substantial evidence. As noted above, the ALJ
found that plaintiff could perform light work with numerous
exertional limitations, including only frequent reaching,
pushing, handling, fingering, balancing, stooping, kneeling,
and crouching and only occasional crawling. Tr. 17-18. Light
work involves lifting no more than twenty pounds at a time
and frequently lifting up to ten pounds at a time. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1567(b). Plaintiffs past relevant work is as a
nursery school attendant. Tr. 24.
has a documented history of arm and neck pain with evidence
of multi-level degenerative disc disease and mild facet
arthritis. See, e.g., Tr. 359-62; 380. Plaintiff
testified that she had difficulty lifting children at work
because of her pain. Tr. 54. While the ALJ may not have found
plaintiffs complaints of pain entirely credible, plaintiff
has come forward with evidence of a condition which would be
reasonably expected to produce pain and she should be
afforded at least some credit as to her complaints of pain.
See Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 564-65 (4th
specific concern in this case is the evidence in the record
of a limitation in plaintiffs ability to use her non-dominant
left arm due to pain. A nerve conduction study conducted in
2012 revealed radiculopathy at ¶ 5-6 on the left. Tr.
377-78. Plaintiff reported pain, numbness, and tingling in
her left hand made worse by reaching. Tr. 522. Although the
ALJ provided a through recitation of the medical evidence in
this case, he did not provide a sufficient explanation as to
the weight he afforded plaintiffs specific complaints of left
arm pain and its effects on his RFC determination. The Court
finds this to be of particular importance in light of the
past relevant work working with children and infants which
plaintiff has been found capable of performing. Further, the
ALJ asked the vocational expert in this case about the impact
of only occasional use of plaintiff s left arm during the
hearing but failed to explain his rationale for not including
such an additional limitation in his final RFC
finding. Tr. 75. See Hammond v. Heckler,765 F.2d 424, 426 (4th Cir. 1985) ("duty of explanation
is always an important ...