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Person v. Berryhill

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

March 15, 2017

BEATRICE MAE PERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W.FLANAGAN United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 14, 16). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates, entered a memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff’s motion, grant defendant’s motion, and affirm defendant’s decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the M&R, and the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court rejects the recommendation in the M&R, albeit adopting certain parts of its analysis, and remands to defendant for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 18, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning September 13, 2012. The application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after an October 7, 2014, hearing, denied plaintiff’s claims by order entered December 15, 2014. Following the ALJ’s denial of her applications, plaintiff timely filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. On October 21, 2015, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review; thus, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of defendant. This action followed.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review defendant’s final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is . . . such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for defendant’s. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589.

         “A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ’s ruling,” including “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). An ALJ’s decision must “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion,” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 190 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)), and an ALJ “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Id. at 189 (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).

         To assist it in its review of defendant’s denial of benefits, the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations, and the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate’s proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Absent a specific and timely filed objection, the court reviews only for “clear error,” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The ALJ’s determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:

(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant’s medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.

Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 13, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: systemic lupus erythematosus, obesity, and cervical degenerative disc disease. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments (“listings” or “listed impairments”) in the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App.1 [hereinafter “Listing of Impairments”].

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations: lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for six hours; stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently handle and finger; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequently climb stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff’s statements about her limitations and pain not fully credible. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a machine packer. At step five, the ALJ determined that jobs exist in significant numbers that plaintiff is capable of performing. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the terms of the Social Security Act. B. Analysis Plaintiff objects to the M&R’s treatment of the following issues: the ALJ’s assignment of very little weight to the opinion of plaintiff’s treating nurse practitioner; the ALJ’s credibility determination relating to plaintiff’s allegations of pain; and the ALJ’s failure to address ...


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