United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-22, DE-26] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Charlene Evers
("Claimant") 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, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"),
and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments.
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, it is recommended that
Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be
denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for a period of disability,
DIB, and SSI on January 14, 2014, alleging disability
beginning November 27, 2013. (R. 200-09). Both claims were
denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 70-122,
129-46). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ") was held on February 29, 2016, at which
Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert
("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 29-69). On March
28, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's
request for benefits. (R. 9-28). On July 20, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (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.
Chafer, 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, 416.920 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) and
416.920a(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
impairments): activities of daily living; social functioning;
concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of
decompensation. Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3),
416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his
written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on
the "special technique." Id. §§
case, Claimant alleges the following error by the ALJ:
failure to consider all of the factors set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1529(c)(3) and 416.929(c)(3) for evaluating
subjective complaints. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-23] at 8.
the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the
Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date.
(R. 14). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar
and cervical spine. (R. 15). The ALJ also found Claimant had
nonsevere impairments of psoriasis bilaterally on the
posterior of Claimant's elbows and the anterior of her
knees, hypertension, high blood pressure, esophageal reflux,
chronic pulmonary disease ("COPD"), migraine
headaches, nonischemic chest pain with associated anxiety,
and rheumatoid arthritis. (R. 15-17). However, at step three,
the ALJ concluded ...