United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
Reidinger United States District Judge.
MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's
Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 10] and the Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. 12]. As more fully
explained below, the Court will grant the Plaintiff's
motion and remand this matter.
asserts that her severe depression, major anxiety, and
certain other mood disorders constitute severe mental
impairments under the Social Security Act rendering her
disabled. [Doc. 8-4 at 2 (Transcript (“T.”) at
86)]. On February 20, 2012, the Plaintiff filed an
application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of June 2, 2009
(later amended to January 15, 2012). [Doc. 8-3 at 67 (T. at
66)]. The Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on May
17, 2012 [Doc. 8-4 at 2 to 19 (T. at 86 to 103)], and upon
reconsideration on September 5, 2012. [Id. at 21 to
39 (T. at 105 to 123)]. At the Plaintiff's request, a
hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 12,
2014. [Doc. 8-3 at 64 to 86 (T. at 63 to 85)]. The Plaintiff
appeared with counsel. Also present were Kathryn H. Mooney,
the Vocational Expert (“VE”), and Annette
Gilbert, the Plaintiff's sister. [Id.]. On
August 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying
the Plaintiff benefits. [Id. at 25 to 35 (T. at 24
to 34)]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's
request for review on November 24, 2015, thereby making the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
[Id. at 2 to 4 (T. at 1 to 3)]. The Plaintiff,
having exhausted all available administrative remedies, filed
her action in this Court. This case is now ripe for review
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is
limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner
applied the correct legal standards, Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
“When examining [a Social Security Administration]
disability determination, a reviewing court is required to
uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct
legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are
supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v.
Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012).
“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) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence
but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v.
Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal
quotation marks omitted). “In reviewing for substantial
evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.”
Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks
and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting
evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court
defers to the ALJ's decision. Id. (internal
quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for
substantial evidence, “[t]he record should include a
discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why,
and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements
to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin,
734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
“disability” entitling a claimant to benefits
under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is
“[the] inability 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A) (2012). The claimant “bears the burden of
proving that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act.” English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d
1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993). In determining whether or not a
claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential
process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. If the
claimant's case fails at any step, the ALJ does not go
any further and benefits are denied. Pass v. Chater,
65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the
claimant's application is denied regardless of the
medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the
claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. If not,
the case progresses to the second step where the claimant
must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show
any physical or mental deficiencies or a combination thereof
which significantly limit the claimant's ability to
perform work activities, then no severe impairment is
established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.
Third, if a severe impairment is shown and meets or equals
one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found
at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P, the
claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age,
education or work experience. Id. Fourth, if the
severe impairment does not meet any of the Listings, then the
ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) and reviews the physical and
mental demands of work done in the past. If the claimant can
still perform his/her prior work despite the severe
impairment, then a finding of not disabled is mandated.
Id. If the claimant has a severe impairment but
cannot perform past relevant work, then the case progresses
to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the
five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the
claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the
claimant can perform alternative work that exists in
substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.;
Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006)
(noting Commissioner bears evidentiary burden at step five).
The Commissioner may meet this burden by relying on the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”) found at
20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 2 to Subpart P, if applicable,
or by calling a VE to testify. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566. If
the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step
five, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the claimant
is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a
determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her alleged amended onset
date. At step two the ALJ found, as relevant here, that
Plaintiff suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, major
depression, dependent personality disorder, mood disorder,
and attention deficit disorder, all severe mental
impairments. [Doc. 8-3 at 27 (T. at 26)]. At step three, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or
equal one of the Listings. [Id.].
four, the ALJ made his determination with regard to the
Plaintiff's RFC and concluded that:
the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform
medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except, the
claimant retained the mental capacity to perform simple,
repetitive, routine tasks, where there was no contact with
the public, in a non-production environment, with a set
[Id. at 29 (T. at 28)]. As noted, the ALJ's
medium work RFC determination was restricted. He concluded
Plaintiff could not perform the full range of medium work, in
part, because she was limited to performing simple tasks, in
a non-public setting, that did not require firm production
quotas. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work
as a legal assistant, an office manager, and a receptionist.
[Id. at 34 (T. at 33)]. The ALJ observed, however,
that “[s]ince claimant is only able to perform at the
unskilled level, she would not be able to engage in past
work.” [Id.]. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded
the Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work.
the Plaintiff having carried her burden through the first
four steps, the ALJ then assessed whether, at step five, the
Commissioner could meet her burden of showing the
availability of jobs the Plaintiff is able to do, given her
RFC. [Id.]. Based upon the testimony of the VE, the
ALJ concluded that, considering the Plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs
existing in the local and/or national economy that she was
able to perform, including day worker, laundry labeler, ...