United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge
action, plaintiff Renada Dodson ("plaintiff or, in
context, "claimant") challenges the final decision
of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A.
Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her application
for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") 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,
20. Each party filed a memorandum in support of its motion
(D.E. 18, 21), and plaintiff filed a reply (D.E. 23). 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 16 Oct. 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.
protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on 10 May
2012 and 30 July 2012, respectively, alleging a disability
onset date of 30 September 2011. Transcript of Proceedings
("Tr.") 14. The applications were denied initially
and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was
timely filed. Tr. 14. On 13 May 2015, a hearing was held
before an ALJ, at which plaintiff (represented by counsel),
plaintiffs mother, and a vocational expert testified. Tr.
33-86. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claims on
2 November 2015. Tr. 14-27.
timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 6-10. On
15 November 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for
review. Tr. 1. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became
the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.981, 416.1481. On 16 January 2017, plaintiff
commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the
ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
(DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). See Mot. to Proceed
In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") (D.E. 1); Ord.
Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).
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); see Id. § 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
Id. § 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." Id.
§§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).
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
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive
determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's
[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.
was 31 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and
35 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 24 ¶ 7. The
ALJ found that plaintiff has at least a high school education
(Tr. 25 ¶ 8) and no past relevant work (Tr. 24 ¶
the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one
that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the date of alleged onset of disability, 30
September 2011. Tr. 16 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found
that plaintiff has the severe impairments of "bilateral
hearing loss, borderline intellectual functioning, a bipoloar
disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)/generalized
anxiety disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and a
personality disorder." Tr. 17 ¶ 3. At step three,
the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any
of the Listings. Tr. 17 ¶ 4.
next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform work at
all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional
She can work in noise environments up to and including
moderate (as defined in the Selected Characteristics of
Occupations [("SCO"), app. D, p. D-2 ¶
She can perform work that does not require exposure to moving
mechanical parts (as defined by the [SCO]). She can perform
goal-oriented rather than production-oriented work (e.g., the
performance of work tasks in allotted time is more important
than the pace at which the work tasks are performed). She can
understand, remember, and perform work tasks at GED
[i.e., General Education Development] Reasoning
Level 02 (as defined in the [DOT, app. C § III, Scale of
GED Reasoning Dev., 1991 WL 688702]). She can perform work
that involves routine tasks (i.e., no more than occasional
changes in core work duties). She can have occasional contact
with the general public that is inconsequential or
superficial (i.e., no sustained conversations, e.g., ticket
taker). She can have occasional contact with coworkers that
is inconsequential or superficial (i.e., no sustained
conversations, e.g., mail clerk).
Tr. 19 ¶ 5.
noted, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff has no past
relevant work. Tr. 24 ¶ 6. At step five, citing the
testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that there
were jobs in the national economy existing in significant
numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the
occupations of cleaner-housekeeper, street cleaner, and
sorter of agricultural produce. Tr. 25 ¶ 10. The ALJ
accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled ...