United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-20, DE-22] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Sandra Nowell Hall
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial
review of the denial of her application 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
denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
is allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner is
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for a period of disability
and DIB on February 12, 2013, alleging disability beginning
November 25, 2011. (R. 24, 200-01). Her claim was denied
initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 24, 94-129). A
hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
was held on April 6, 2015, at which Claimant was represented
by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared
and testified. (R. 44-93). On September 24, 2015, the ALJ
issued a decision denying Claimant's request for
benefits. (R. 21-43). On July 12, 2016, the Appeals Council
denied Claimant's request for review and incorporated
additional evidence into the record. (R. 1-6). Claimant then
filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the.
now-final administrative decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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, 76 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).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
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
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).
case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred in considering the
opinion evidence and in considering the Global Assessment of
Functioning ("GAF") scores. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21]
the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the
Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer
engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 26). Next, the
ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments:
carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, lumbago, sacrolilitis, and
major depressive disorder. Id. The ALJ also found
Claimant's hypertension to be a non-severe impairment and
that Claimant's allegations of fibromyalgia were not
supported by objective findings or testing, such that
fibromyalgia was a non-medically determinable impairment. (R.
27). 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.
27-29). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations,
the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have
resulted in mild limitations in her activities of daily
living, and moderate limitations in social functioning and
concentration, persistence, or pace with no episodes of
decompensation. (R. 28-29).
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's
RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light
with the following limitations: occasionally balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ramps, stairs,
ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; must avoid concentrated
exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation;
can frequently handle and finger bilaterally; and can
frequently reach in all directions with left upper extremity,
but occasionally reach overhead. (R. 30). The ALJ also found
that Claimant can understand, remember, and carry out
unskilled, simple, repetitive, and routine tasks in a
non-production pace setting for two hours at a time with
normal breaks; is able to adapt to occasional simple changes;
and may have superficial contact with others, meaning
successful performance of job duties involves work primarily
with things and not people. Id. In making this
assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her
limitations not fully credible. (R. 33).
four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to
perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a parts
manager or parts salesperson. (R. 36). Nonetheless, at step
five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable
of adjusting to the demands of other ...