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Rodwell v. Berryhill

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

January 8, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          James E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge.

         In this action, plaintiff Gwenisse Durham Rodwell ("plaintiff or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on the grounds that she is not disabled. The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 17, 23. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 18, 24. 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 9 Nov. 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on 13 November 2013 alleging the onset of disability on 8 March 2013. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 10. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was timely filed. Tr. 10. On 2 November 2015, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), at which plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 30-80. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim on 13 January 2016. Tr. 10-20. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 6. The Appeals Council denied the request on 17 January 2017. Tr. 1. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review on 2 February 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") Mot. (D.E. 2); Order Denying IFP Mot. (D.E. 7); Compl. (D.E. 8).

         B. Standards for Disability

         The Social Security Act ("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); 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). 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." Id. § 423(d)(3).

         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 [R]egulations; 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 [R]egulations (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 [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] 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).[1] 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).[2]
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.[3] 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).

         C. Findings of the ALJ

         Plaintiff was 33 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 35 years old on the date of the hearing. See Tr. 19 ¶ 7; 36. The ALJ found that she has a limited education. Tr. 19 ¶ 8. Her past relevant work included employment as a mental retardation aide[4] at the Murdoch Developmental Center, a facility operated by North Carolina for developmentally disabled individuals. See Tr. 19 ¶ 6; 39; 42-44; 71; see generally Murdoch Developmental Center, (last visited 8 Jan. 2018). Plaintiff also had past relevant work as a home health aide and department store manager. Tr. 19 ¶ 6.

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability. Tr. 12 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairment that was severe within the meaning of the Regulations: disorders of the back, which are discogenic and degenerative, and obesity. Tr. 12 ¶ 3. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the Listings. Tr. 12 ¶ 4.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of work at the light exertional level, as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)[5] except the claimant can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit six hours in an eight hour workday; stand six hours in an eight hour workday with alternating to sitting for one hour after every one hour of standing; walk six hours in an eight hour workday; push and/or pull as much as the claimant can lift/carry; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders and scaffolds; frequently balance, kneel and ...

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