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Jones v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2017

SAMUEL LEE JONES, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          Robert B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-18, -24] pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Claimant Samuel Lee Jones ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his applications for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the matter be remanded for further proceedings.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant filed applications for aperiod of disability, DIB, and SSI on September 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning June 14, 2011. (R. 21, 205-13). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 21, 68-119). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on June 3, 2014, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 21, 34-55). On September 8, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 18-33). On November 27, 2015, after considering additional evidence submitted by Claimant, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-7). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., 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). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "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) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76F.3d 585, 589 (4thCir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform ... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm 'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and 416.920a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. §§ 404.1520a(e)(3), 416.920a(e)(3).

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. (R. 28). At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 23). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of history of prostate cancer, mild degenerative disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), asthma, and anxiety disorder. Id. The ALJ also determined that Claimant's alleged bilateral pain and weakness was a non-medically determinable impairment and non-severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded these 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. (R. 24-25). Applying the special technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in moderate restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in social functioning and in concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 24).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] with the following limitations: frequently balance, stoop, and kneel, and occasionally crouch, crawl, and climb, but should avoid working in environments with concentrated respiratory irritants due to COPD or in confined spaces due to anxiety impairment. (R. 25-28). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about his limitations not entirely credible. (R. 27). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant is able to perform his past relevant work as a shipping and receiving weigher. (R. 28).

         Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) failure to perform a function-by-function analysis in making the RFC determination; (2) failure to analyze the Ruling 96-7p factors in the credibility determination; and (3) determining the job of shipping and receiving weigher was past relevant work. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-19] at 8-13.

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ's RFC Determination

         An individual's RFC is the capacity an individual possesses despite the limitations caused by physical or mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1); see also S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The RFC is based on all relevant medical and other evidence in the record and may include a claimant's own description of limitations arising from alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3); see also S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL 3 74184, at * 5. Where a claimant has numerous impairments, including non-severe impairments, the ALJ must consider their cumulative effect in making a disability determination. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); see Hines v. Bowen, 872 F.2d 56, 59 (4th Cir. 1989) ("[I]n determining whether an individual's impairments are of sufficient severity to prohibit basic work related activities, an ALJ must consider the combined effect of a claimant's impairments.") (citations omitted). The ALJ has sufficiently considered the combined effects of a claimant's impairments when each is separately discussed by the ALJ and the ALJ also discusses a claimant's complaints and activities. Baldwin v. Barnhart, 444 F.Supp.2d 457, 465 (E.D. N.C. 2005) (citations omitted). The RFC assessment "must include a discussion of why reported symptom-related functional limitations and restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as consistent with the medical and other evidence." S.S.R. 96- 8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7.

         1. ...


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