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Campbell v. Berryhill

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

January 17, 2018

CRYSTAL G. CAMPBELL, 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-23, -27] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Crystal Campbell ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. 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.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for SSI on March 29, 2011, alleging disability beginning June 1, 1990. (R. 349-55). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 125-55). Ahearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on March 14, 2013, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 99-124). A supplemental hearing involving the same parties was held on July 26, 2013, at which Claimant amended her alleged onset date to June 30, 2010, the date of her prior application for benefits. (R. 81-98). On September 17, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 156-74). On September 12, 2014, the Appeals Council allowed Claimant's request for review and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (R. 175-78). The ALJ held a third hearing on April 1, 2015 (R. 65-80), at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a VE appeared and testified, and on June 3, 2015, the ALJ again denied Claimant's request for benefits (R. 39-64). The Appeals Council, after receiving additional evidence, denied Claimant's request for review on October 6, 2016. (R. 1-6). 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 Coffman 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. § 416.920 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. § 416.920a(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. § 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 416.920a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider and weigh the opinion of Claimant's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Christopher Myers. PL's Mem. [DE-24] at 19-30.

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her prior application date of June 30, 2010. (R. 44). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, obesity, polycystic ovaries, affective disorder, mood disorder, and anxiety, and the non-severe impairments of acanthosis nigricans, borderline thyroid disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and migraines. (R. 45). At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant's 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. 45-47). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had resulted in moderate restriction in her activities of daily living, social functioning, and maintenance of concentration, persistence, or pace, with one to two episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (R. 46). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding that Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] with the following restrictions:

The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and occasionally crouch. She must avoid working at unprotected heights. Additionally, the claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in an environment where changes are infrequent and are ...

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