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Ward v. Berryhill

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

January 19, 2018

LORETHA S. WARD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

          KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Loretha S. Ward (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 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, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #22] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #26] be denied, and the Commissioner's decision be remanded for further proceedings.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on July 15, 2013, with an alleged onset date of July 14, 2013. (R. 13, 155.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 13, 74, 91, 110.) A video hearing was held on April 27, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gary Brockington, who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 28, 2015. (R. 13, 26.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 21, 2016. (R. 1.) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in original). “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, 76 F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. (Id.)

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since July 15, 2013, the application date. (R. 15.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; essential hypertension; history of possible transient ischemic attack; asthma; obesity; depression; anxiety disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and borderline intellectual functioning (BIF).” (Id.) The ALJ also found Plaintiff's vertigo, hyperlipidemia, and history of alcohol abuse to be non-severe impairments. (R. 15-16.)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff'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. 16-19.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 1.04, 4.00 and related, 3.00 and related, 12.02, 12.04, 12.05, and 12.06. (Id.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except she can have occasional exposure to concentrated levels of pulmonary irritants such as dust, odors, fumes, and gases and to poorly ventilated areas and she can have little, if any, exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery or moving mechanical parts. Her work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace; simple work ...

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