United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on plaintiffs motion for judgment
on the pleadings and defendant's motion to remand under
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A hearing was held
on the motions before the undersigned on February 24, 2017,
at Raleigh, North Carolina. For the reasons discussed below,
the decision of the Commissioner is reversed.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of Commissioner
denying his claim for disability and disability insurance
benefits (DIB) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security
Act. Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 1, 2012, alleging
disability since March 6, 2012. His claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) then held a hearing and considered plaintiffs claim
de novo. The ALJ found that plaintiff was not
disabled in a decision dated October 22, 2014. The Appeals
Council then denied plaintiffs request for review and the
decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the
Commissioner. Plaintiff then timely sought review of the
Commissioner's decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 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. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
Substantial evidence consists of more than a mere scintilla
of evidence, but may be less than a preponderance of
evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971). The court must not substitute its judgment for that
of the Commissioner if the Commissioner's decision is
supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907
evaluating whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ uses a
multi-step process. First, a claimant must not be able to
work in a substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520. Second, a claimant must have a severe impairment
that significantly limits his or her physical or mental
ability to do basic work activities. Id. Third, to
be found disabled, without considering a claimant's age,
education, and work experience, a claimant's impairment
must be of sufficient duration and must either meet or equal
an impairment listed by the regulations (Listing).
Id. Fourth, in the alternative, a claimant may be
disabled if his or her impairment prevents the claimant from
doing past relevant work and, fifth, if the impairment
prevents the claimant from doing other work. Id. 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).
finding at step one that plaintiff met the insured status
requirement and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since his alleged onset date, the ALJ found at step
two that plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease (DDD), degenerative joint disease
(DJD), plantar fasciitis, posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), a personality disorder, and alcohol abuse. The ALJ
found that plaintiffs impairments did not alone or in
combination meet or equal a Listing at step three, and found
plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to
perform light work with exertional and nonexertional
limitations. The ALJ went on to find at step four that
plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a human
resources advisor, community worker, tractor trailer driver,
or dump truck driver. The ALJ found that, considering
plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there
were jobs which existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that plaintiff could perform, specifically
marker, mail clerk, and router. Accordingly, the ALJ found
that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of her
decision, October 22, 2014.
seeks a remand under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
for further administrative proceedings and development.
See Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98 (1991)
(explaining that remand under sentence four involves a
determination as to the correctness of the ALJ's
decision, while remand under sentence six for consideration
of new evidence does not). Defendant concedes that the ALJ
erred in not properly articulating the weight given to the
opinions of Drs. Blackshear and Bash or the disability rating
provided by the Veteran's Administration. Plaintiff does
not consent to remand under sentence four.
reviewed the record in this case, the decision of the ALJ,
and the arguments by the parties, the Court in its discretion
finds that reversal of the ALJ's decision is appropriate.
Edwards v. Bowen, 672 F.Supp. 230, 237 (E.D. N.C.
1987); see also Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012,
1015 (4th Cir. 1984). When "[o]nthe state of the record,
[plaintiffs] entitlement to benefits is wholly established,
" reversal for award of benefits rather than remand is
proper. Crider v. Harris, 624 F.2d 15, 17 (4th Cir.
1980). It is appropriate for a federal court to "reverse
without remanding where the record does not contain
substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage
under the correct legal standard and when reopening the
record for more evidence would serve no purpose."
Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir.
the ALJ did not entirely fail to explain her reasoning and
there is no ambivalence in the medical record which would
preclude this Court from "meaningful review."
Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir.
2013). Indeed, the ALJ specifically considered the opinions
of Dr. Blackshear and Dr. Bash and afforded their opinions
some weight. Tr. 21-22. The ALJ found that, as Drs.
Blackshear and Bash had concluded, plaintiff was limited, but
that he was able to perform simple unskilled work with a
sit/stand option. Tr. 22. Substantial evidence does not
support the ALJ's determination.
Blackshear, an examining psychologist, found that plaintiff
had a very hard time focusing and sustaining attention, that
plaintiff had panic attacks more than once per week that must
be managed with medication, that plaintiffs memory was
moderately impaired, that plaintiff was intermittently unable
to perform activities of daily living due to his mood
disorder, that plaintiff was unable to establish and maintain
effective work, school, and social relationships due to
plaintiffs isolation, near continuous panic which affects
plaintiffs ability to function independently and
appropriately, and impaired impulse control which includes
period of violence. Tr. 1370-1372.
Bash, a neuro-radiologist and examining independent medical
expert for the Veteran's Administration, conducted a
thorough review of plaintiff s medical records and current
symptoms in March 2012. Tr. 407-418. Regarding plaintiffs
mental disorder, Dr. Bash noted serious major symptoms,
including suicidal ideation; extreme sleep outcomes; extreme
irritability and angry outbursts; extreme difficulty
concentrating; difficulty in establishing and maintaining
effective work and social relationships; near continuous
panic or depression which affected plaintiffs ability to
function independently, appropriately, and effectively;
impaired impulse control; and occupation and social
impairments with deficiencies in most areas, including work.
Tr. 416. Dr. Bash opined that plaintiff would have a severe
impairment in obtaining or retaining employment. Tr. 417.
opinions of Dr. Blackshear and Dr. Bash are supported by the
record. Dr. Brannon, a consultative examiner with Disability
Determination Services, opined that plaintiff would have
difficulty adjusting adequately in a job setting, that he did
not seem stable from a psychological standpoint, and that he
was a volatile individual who could be violent. Tr. 622. Two
non-examining state agency consultants, Jennifer Fulmer and
William Farrell, found that plaintiffs anxiety and affective
disorders were ...