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White v. Berryhill

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

December 1, 2017

KISHA NICOLE WHITE, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          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-19, -21] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Kisha Nicole White ("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 allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Memorandum and Recommendation.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on May 6, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 15, 2012. (R. 26). Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 114-57). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on April 29, 2015, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 44-83). On May 15, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 23-43). On August 18, 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.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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, 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).

         III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

         The 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 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. §§ 404.152Oa(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 impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. §§ 4O4.l52Oa(c)(3), 4l6.92Oa(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. §§ 4O4.l52Oa(e)(3), 4l6.92Oa(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) failure to find that Claimant's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine met Listing 1.04; (2) failure to find that the medical source statement and opinions contained therein were entitled to great weight; (3) improper assessment of Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); (4) failure to properly assess Claimant's symptoms and credibility; (5) failure to accurately set forth all of Claimant's physical and mental limitations in the hypothetical posed to the VE; and (6) failure to find Claimant disabled as a result of her mental and physical impairments. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-20] at 7- 8.

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying 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. 28). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus; diabetic neuropathy; degenerative disc disease; and obesity. 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. 29).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] with postural and environmental restrictions as follows:

The claimant can sit for 15 minutes at one time and then she needs to walk around for 15 minutes. She can sit for two hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can walk or stand for an hour at one time and for up to six hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can lift 20 pounds occasionally and she can lift 10 pounds frequently. She can occasionally stoop and crouch. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can have occasional exposure to hazards.

Id.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a certified nurse assistant and watch guard. (R. 35). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform.- (R. 36).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ's finding that Claimant's impairments did not meet Listing 1.04 is ...


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