United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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).
Standards for Disability
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).
disability regulations under the Act
("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that
the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is
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). 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.
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. 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.
Findings of the ALJ
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 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
(last visited 8 Jan. 2018). Plaintiff also had past relevant
work as a home health aide and department store manager. Tr.
19 ¶ 6.
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.
next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a
limited range of work at the light exertional level, as
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) 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 ...