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Swan v. Berryhill

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

May 10, 2017

Sylvia Swan, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Sylvia Swan instituted this action on May 25, 2016, to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Swan claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William Andersen erred in failing to resolve inconsistencies between the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) he assessed and a functional capacity revaluation (“FCE”) contained in the record. Swan also maintains that ALJ Andersen erred in failing to assign weight to the North Carolina disability determination regarding her eligibility for long-term disability benefits. Both Swan and Defendant Nancy Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 15, 17.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Andersen erred in assigning significant weight to the FCE without explaining the apparent inconsistency it presented with his RFC determination. Additionally, the court is unable to determine the weight ALJ Andersen accorded to Swan's state disability determination. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge grants Swan's motion, denies Berryhill's motion, and remands the matter to the Commissioner for further consideration.[2]

         I. Background

         On May 10, 2012, Swan filed an application for disability benefits. In her application, Swan alleged that she lived with a disability that began on July 17, 2008. After her claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Swan appeared before an ALJ Andersen on June 19, 2014 to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Andersen determined Swan was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 43-52.

         ALJ Andersen found that Swan had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis and allied disorders, dysfunction in the major joints, carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), and obesity. Id. at 45. ALJ Andersen found that Swan's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Id. at 46. He then determined that Swan had the RFC to perform light work with limitations. Id. She can occasionally to frequently handle and finger with her right hand. Id. Swan can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she cannot climb ladders. Id. Swan can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl and she can occasionally work around unprotected heights. Id.

         ALJ Andersen concluded that Swan was unable to perform her past relevant work as a school bus driver but that considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Swan was capable of performing. Id. at 50. These jobs included: office helper, call out operator, and order clerk. Id. at 51. Thus, ALJ Andersen found that Swan was not disabled. Id. at 52.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Swan commenced this action on May 25, 2016. D.E. 5.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision meets this standard, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. ...

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