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Quate v. Berryhill

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

September 27, 2017

PAULA GUFFEY QUATE, Plaintiff/Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          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-20, DE-25] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Paula Guffey Quate ("Claimant"), proceeding pro se, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on March 5, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 15, 2010. (R. 908-83). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 66-93, 96-103). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Augustus C. Martin was held on November 17, 2011, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 32-65). On December 9, 2011, ALJ Martin issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 14-31). On February 14, 2012, the Appeals Council ("AC") denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-5). On April 13, 2012, Claimant filed an action in this court, and on June 5, 2013, the court allowed Claimant's motion for judgment on the pleadings, remanding the case to the Commissioner for the further proceedings because the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate the opinion of Erin Williamson, a nurse practitioner, and for consideration of new and material evidence. (R. 858-63); Quote v. Colvin, No. 7:12-CV-92-BO ("Quote i") (E.D. N.C. June 5, 2013) (Boyle, J.).

         On January 27, 2015, ALJ Carl B. Watson held a second hearing, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a VE appeared and testified. (R. 803-39). On March 20, 2015, ALJ Watson issued an unfavorable decision. (R 781-802). On August 28, 2015, the AC incorporated new evidence into the record and then issued additional findings and analysis, determining that Claimant's arguments did not provide a basis for disturbing the ALJ's decision. (R. 497-504). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.


         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, 16 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 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).


         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 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). 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). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges that the ALJ erred in the RFC formulation by improperly evaluating the medical opinion evidence and Claimant's credibility, and in determining that Claimant could perform her past relevant work. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21] at 7-13.


         A. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act prior to her date last insured of December 31, 2013. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 786). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease to the cervical and lumbar spine, hepatitis C, asthma, obesity, residuals from right rotator cuff tear and partial right biceps tears, and early degenerative joint disease to the right shoulder. Id. The ALJ also found Claimant had the following non-severe impairments: gastroenteritis, a history of carpal tunnel syndrome, vision problems, dermatitis, acute renal failure resolved, and depression. Id. However, 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. 787-88). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's depression has resulted in no limitations in her activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace with no episodes of decompensation. (R. 787).

         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: she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; cannot reach overhead with either arm; must avoid concentrated exposure to smoke, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation; and must avoid working at unprotected heights. (R. 788). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not fully credible. (R. 791-92). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant had the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a graphic designer, desktop publisher, and receptionist as those jobs are generally performed. (R. 793).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ...

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