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Lawson v. Berryhill

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

December 19, 2017

JOHN EDWARD LAWSON JR., 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-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.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant 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.

         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 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).

         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 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 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.

         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. 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).

         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:

[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 ...

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