United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
CONNIE L. HARRISON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge
matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions
for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 24, 28). Pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Swank
entered a memorandum and recommendation
(“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that this
court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's
motion, and affirm defendant's final decision. Plaintiff
timely filed an objection to the M&R, and the issues
raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, this
court adopts the M&R as its own, grants defendant's
motion, denies plaintiff's motion, and affirms
defendant's final decision.
March 1, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for
supplemental security income, alleging disability since July
1, 2009. The application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before
an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after a
January 8, 2013, hearing, denied plaintiff's claim by
decision entered January 29, 2013. Following the ALJ's
denial of her application, plaintiff timely filed a request
for review with the Appeals Council, which vacated the
ALJ's decision and remanded the case for a new hearing
before an ALJ. On September 24, 2014, the ALJ conducted
another hearing, and on January 12, 2015, again issued an
unfavorable ruling. The Appeals Council denied
plaintiff's request for review on March 4, 2016.
Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this court on May 10,
2016, seeking review of defendant's decision.
Standard of Review
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.
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,
189 (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. (quoting Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).
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 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).
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).
instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation.
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011, her
application date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff
had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (“COPD”)/asthma, alcohol
dependence in reported remission, and an adjustment disorder
with depressed mood. However, at step three, the ALJ
determined that these impairments were not severe enough,
viewed either individually or in combination, to meet or
medically equal those in the Listing of Impairments
(“Listings”), found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App. 1. Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined
that during the relevant time period, plaintiff had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
light exertional work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
416.967(b), with exceptions. In particular, plaintiff should
avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes of heat
and cold, poorly ventilated areas, and pulmonary irritants,
such as dust, odors, and gases. Further, the ALJ noted that
plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in
a low-stress job, which was defined as having only occasional
changes in the work setting, and she should not perform any
fast-paced production rate or pace work. In making this
assessment, the ALJ noted that although plaintiff's
medically determinable impairments could be expected to cause
some of the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms
were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 24). At step
four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was able to perform
her past relevant work as a mail sorter. In an alternative
finding, at step five, the ALJ found that in light of
plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC,
there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that she can perform. Thus, the ALJ
concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the terms of
the Social Security Act from her application date, March 1,
2011, through the date of the ALJ's decision, January 12,
objects to the M&R's finding that her combination of
mental impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing
12.02. See Objection (DE 35) at 3-5. In particular,
plaintiff contends that she satisfied her burden of proof at
step three in the sequential evaluation because she met
Listing 12.02 in two ways: 1) through criteria in paragraphs
(A)(2) and (B)(2)-(3) and 2) through criteria in paragraphs
in (A)(3) and (B)(2)-(3). Id. at 5.
Listings describe impairments that are considered
“severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any
gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or
work experience.” 20 C.F.R. 416.925(a). In the
Listings, “[e]ach impairment is defined in terms of
several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test
results.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521,
530 (1990). To satisfy the requirements of the Listings, ...