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Allen v. Berryhill

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

March 24, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIMBERLY A. SWANK United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE # 20 & 21], the parties having consented to proceed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff Roderick Vonzell Allen 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 security income ("SSI"). The parties have fully briefed the issues, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. On November 10, 2016, the court held oral argument in the matter. The court has carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties and considered the arguments of counsel. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, denies Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and remands the matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on September 24, 2012, with an alleged onset date of November 15, 2011 (R. 27, 190-99), which Plaintiff subsequently amended to March 1, 2013 (R. 52-53). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 27, 96-97, 118-19, 126-27, 131-32, 135-36.) Administrative Law Judge Ronald Sweeda ("AL J") held a video hearing on September 26, 2014; the ALJ denied benefits in a ruling issued October 29, 2014. (R. 27, 40-41.) Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision.


         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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). '"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) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589). 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). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983).

         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. l; (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. Commr 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 that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2015. (R. 29.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 30.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease, hepatitis C, depression, history of frostbite and history of substance abuse." (Id.) The ALJ identified knee pain, facial cysts, and hypothyroidism as non-severe impairments. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiffs 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 Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC") and found that Plaintiff had "the residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . . except no exposure to work hazards and simple routine repetitive tasks." (R. 32.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiffs statements about the severity of his symptoms not "fully credible" and listed several reasons for discounting Plaintiffs credibility. (R. 38.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (Id.) At step five, the ALJ determined jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and listed laundry worker, janitor, and packer as potential occupations. (R. 39-40.)

         IV. Plaintiffs Contentions

         Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits on two grounds. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ incorrectly evaluated his RFC. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to ...

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