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Condon v. Berryhill

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

January 2, 2018

TINA M. CONDON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          James E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge

         In this action, plaintiff Tina M. Condon ("plaintiff or, in context, "the claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disabled widow's benefits ("DWB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), which title relates to disability insurance benefits ("DIB") generally, and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act on the grounds that she is not disabled.[1] The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 15, 17. Each party filed a memorandum in support of its motion. D.E. 16, 18. The motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). See 20 June 2017 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiffs motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Case History

         Plaintiff filed applications for DWB and SSI on 5 October 2012, alleging a disability onset date of 1 July 1998. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 11. The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALT"). Tr. 11. In a statement dated 11 May 2015 (Tr. 188), plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to 5 October 2012. On 12 June 2015, an ALJ held a hearing at which plaintiff alone testified, although a vocational expert was present. Tr. 23-42. On 6 July 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to DWB or SSI. Tr. 11-18. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council (Tr. 7), but it denied review on 21 November 2016 (Tr. 1). Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review on 21 December 2016, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DWB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). See In Forma Pauperis Mot. (D.E. 1); Ord. Allowing Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).

         II. Standards for Disability

         The Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). 'An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations ["the listings"]; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working (step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do not meet the severity and duration requirements of the regulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of "not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a listed impairment or continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this step.
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is "the most" the claimant "can still do despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1).[2] To make this assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, " including those not labeled severe at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).[3]
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her past work. Or, if the exertion required for the claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that "exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " considering the claimant's [RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429.[4] The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies the application for benefits.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).

         III. ...


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