United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. A hearing was held on these matters before
the undersigned on August 31, 2017, in Edenton, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, this matter is
remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying her claim for disabled widow's
benefits and disability insurance benefits ("DIB")
pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff
filed her application on May 11, 2012, alleging her period of
disability started on December 31, 2007. Plaintiff filed for
disabled widow's benefits, and so her window of
eligibility began on November 28, 2007, and extended to
November 30, 2014. After initial denial, a hearing was held
before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who
issued an unfavorable ruling. The Appeals Council remanded
for further consideration, and on September 16, 2014, the ALJ
held a second hearing. The ALJ again 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 she 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. § l382c(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. § l382c(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 her 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
her age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform
other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot
perform other work, then she 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 her alleged onset date. Plaintiffs depression,
anxiety, hepatitis C, degenerative joint disease, history of
left ulnar nerve block, and post-foot surgery status were
considered severe impairments at step two, but were not found
alone or in combination to meet or equal a Listing at step
three. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to
perform light work, with additional exertional limitations.
The ALJ found that . Plaintiff was unable to return to her
past relevant work, but that, considering Plaintiffs age,
education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and
the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), 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.
ALJ's decision in this instance is not supported by
substantial evidence. The ALJ determined that plaintiff had
moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or
pace with specifically noted concentration issues. Tr. 48.
The only mental modification the ALJ included in the RFC,
however, was a limitation to simple, routine, repetitive
tasks. Tr. 49. The Fourth Circuit distinguishes between
different kinds of non-exertional limitations. See Mascio
v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015), quoting
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 631 F.3d 1176,
1180 (11th Cir. 2011)) ("An ALJ does not account for a
claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and
pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple,
routine tasks or unskilled work."). "[T]he ability
to perform simple tasks differs from the ability to stay on
task. Only the latter limitation would account for a
claimant's limitation in concentration, persistence, or
pace." Id. Accordingly, the ALJ did not include
any limitations in the RFC for plaintiffs limitations in
concentration, persistence, and pace, and did not explain why
plaintiffs limitations did not translate into a limitation in
her RFC. This was in error.
Social Security disability cases, "[t]he record should
include 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) (citing
Hines v. Bowen, 872 F.2d 56, 59 (4th Cir. 1989)).
The failure of the ALJ to properly consider the above
evidence and testimony in determining whether plaintiffs
conditions were severe or whether they constituted
non-exertional limitations was in error. "If the
reviewing court has no way of evaluating the basis for the
ALJ's decision, then 'the proper course, except in
rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional
investigation or explanation.'" Radford at
295 (citing Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion,
470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985)).
the result of the ALJ's failures to address or weigh the
above evidence in accordance with the principles discussed
was not harmless error and the ...