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Dodson v. Berryhill

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

January 30, 2018

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


          James E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge

         In this 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.[1] 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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).

         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); 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).

         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 [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).[2] 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).[3]
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.[4] 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. ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff 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 ¶ 6).

         Applying 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.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations:

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 ¶ 5[5]]). 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.

         As 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 ...

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