United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
TERRANCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before the
undersigned on May 18, 2017, in Edenton, North Carolina. For
the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying his claim for supplemental security
income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social
Security Act. Plaintiff protectively filed his application on
October 31, 2012, alleging disability beginning September 16,
2011. After initial denials, a hearing was held before an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who issued an
unfavorable ruling. The decision of the ALJ became the final
decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
plaintiffs request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought
review of the Commissioner's decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
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) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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
[twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four,
but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of
the process, however, the inquiry ceases. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
one, if the Social Security Administration determines that
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks
whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination
of impairments. If the claimant has a severe impairment, it
is compared at step three to those in the Listing of
Impairments ("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or
medically equals a Listing, disability is conclusively
presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual
functional capacity ("RFC") is assessed to
determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work.
If so, the claim is denied. If the claimant cannot perform
past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant, based on
his age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform
other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot
perform other work, then he is found to be disabled. See 20
C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since his alleged onset date. Plaintiffs physical
impairments of degenerative-disc disease, obesity, and
hypertension were considered severe at step two, but were not
found alone or in combination to meet or equal a listing at
step three. At step four the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had
the RFC to perform light work except that he could frequently
balance, climb, kneel, and crawl and occasionally stoop and
crouch. The ALJ then found that plaintiff had no past
relevant work. The ALJ then found, in considering plaintiffs
age, education, work experience, and RFC, that there were
other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that plaintiff could perform. Thus, the ALJ
determined that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning
of the Act.
disputing the ALJ's opinion, plaintiff first argues that
the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiffs impairments did not
meet or medically equal Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine.
Plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating that his
impairments met or medically equaled the severity of those in
the Listing of Impairments. See Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). Further, he must present
"medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria
for the one most similar listed impairment, " and
"cannot qualify for benefits under the equivalence step
by showing that the overall functional impact of his unlisted
impairment or combination of impairments is as severe as that
of a listed impairment." Sullivan v. Zebley,
493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990) (emphasis in original).
to the regulations, to meet Listing 1.02 one must have
disorder of the spine, resulting in compromise of a nerve
root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord, with
(A) evidence of nerve-root compression, (B) spinal
arachnoiditis, or (C) lumbar spinal stenosis. 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (1.04). Plaintiff argues that he
satisfied the requirements of paragraph A, which requires
that a claimant show evidence of nerve-root compression
characterized by (1) neuro-anatomic distribution of pain; (2)
limitation of motion of the spine; (3) motor loss (atrophy
with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness)
accompanied by sensory or reflex loss; and, if there is
involvement of the lower back, (4) positive straight-leg
raising test (sitting and supine). 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App. 1 (1.04A); Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288,
291 (4th Cir. 2013).
found that plaintiffs degenerative-disc disease was a severe,
medically determinable impairment, and thus a disorder of the
spine. Tr. 17. However, the ALJ found that neither plaintiffs
degenerative-disc disease, nor any combination of his
impairments, satisfied the requirements of any the additional
criteria under Listing 1.04. The ALJ's opinion on this
matter is supported by substantial evidence. First, the
record does not demonstrate that plaintiff suffered from
motor loss accompanied by sensory or reflex loss. In October
2012, November 2012, and January 2013, examination revealed
no objective lower-extremity motor deficit or sensory
deficit, and reflexes were in the knees and ankles. Tr.
19, 238, 240, 248. In November 2012, December 2012, January
2013, April 2013, July 2013, October 2013, twice in August
2013, September 2013, October 2013, January 2014, May 2014,
August 2014, November 2015, and December 2015, examination
revealed normal motor strength and tone and grossly intact
sensation and cranial nerves. Tr. 20, 253, 256, 260, 274,
318, 322, 325, 328, 332, 335, 364, 367, 370, 373-74, 410-11,
416. In September 2015, plaintiff had full motor strength and
intact sensation to pinprick in the lower extremities. Tr.
the record does not demonstrate that plaintiff satisfied the
straight-leg raising test as required by the listings to show
this impairment. The Listings require that the straight-leg
test be positive in both sitting and supine positions, and
though plaintiff has identified a few instances of a positive
test in one or the other position, there is no instance in
the record of a positive test in both positions. Rather, in
general the tests were negative. Tr. 19, 238, 240, 248, 343,
400. For these reasons, plaintiff did not meet his burden at
this stage to show that he had an ...