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-12, -18] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant John Edward Lawson Jr.
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial
review of the denial of his 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, 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.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for a period of disability
and DIB on July 22, 2010, alleging disability beginning June
30, 2009. (R. 305-07). Both claims were denied initially and
upon reconsideration. (R. 167-88). A hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on June
12, 2012, (R. 42-103), and on August 30, 2012, the ALJ issued
a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R.
189-207). On October 23, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated
the hearing decision and remanded the case for a new hearing
and decision. (R. 208-12). A second hearing was held before a
different ALJ on December 9, 2014, at which Claimant was
represented by counsel, and a vocational expert
("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 104-66). On May
26, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's
request for benefits. (R. 13-41). On August 23, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R.
1-5). 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 Cofftnan 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 following errors by the ALJ: (1)
failure to properly weigh medical opinion evidence; (2)
failure to properly evaluate Claimant's credibility; and
(3) failure to adequately consider the disability rating
issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Pl's Mem.
[DE-13]at 11, 17, 20.
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. 22). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following
severe impairments: osteoarthritis, asthma, obesity,
somatoform disorder, personality disorder, post-traumatic
stress disorder ("PTSD"), 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.
22-24). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations,
the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had
resulted in moderate restriction in his activities of daily
living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence,
or pace, with no episodes of decompensation. (R. 23).
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's
RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light
with the following limitations:
[T]he claimant would be limited to lifting and carrying up to
10 pounds frequently, and sitting, standing, and/or walking
up to six hours in any combination to complete an eight-hour
day. The claimant would need to avoid concentrated exposure
to atmospheric irritants including fumes, odors, dusts, poor
ventilation, humidity, and extremes in temperature. In
addition, the claimant would be limited to low stress work
meaning no high production or quotas, routine, and static
changes, and work that does not involve emergency or
fast-paced situations, conflict resolution, sales or customer
service. The claimant would be limited to occasional