United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
W. FLANAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the court on plaintiff's motion for
judgment on the pleadings (DE 18) and defendant's motion
to remand (DE 24). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States
Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Swank, entered memorandum and
recommendation (“M&R”), wherein it is
recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant
defendant's motion, and remand to defendant for further
consideration or award of benefits. Plaintiff timely filed
objections to the M&R, to which defendant filed a
response, and the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For
reasons noted, the court adopts the M&R, denies
plaintiff's motion, grants defendant's motion, and
remands to defendant for further proceedings.
23, 2014, plaintiff filed an application for disability
insurance benefits and supplemental insurance benefits,
alleging disability beginning March 31, 2013. The claims were
denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff
requested hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), who, after hearing held May 18, 2016,
and supplemental hearing held on July 18, 2016, issued a
partially favorable decision, finding that plaintiff
“was not disabled prior to June 7, 2015, but became
disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled
through the date of this decision.” (DE 12 at 20). The
Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on
January 12, 2017, leaving the ALJ's decision as
defendant's final decision. Plaintiff then filed this
action seeking judicial review of that portion of the
ALJ's decision finding no disability prior to June 7,
Standard of Review
court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to
review defendant's final decision denying benefits. The
court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if
they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached
through application of the correct legal standard.”
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
“Substantial evidence [is] . . . such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by
“more than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less
than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368
F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial
evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting
evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute
[its] judgment” for defendant's. Craig, 76
F.3d at 589.
necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence
review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling,
” including “a discussion of which evidence the
ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the
pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.”
Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir.
2013). An ALJ's decision must “include a narrative
discussion describing how the evidence supports each
conclusion, ” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176,
189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780
F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)), and an ALJ “must build
an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion.” Id. (quoting Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).
assist in its review of defendant's denial of benefits,
the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct
hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact
and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for
judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate
judge's findings and recommendations, and the court
“shall make a de novo determination of those portions
of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made.”
Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a
de novo review where a party makes only “general and
conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a
specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and
recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d
44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). Absent a specific and timely filed
objection, the court reviews only for “clear error,
” and need not give any explanation for adopting the
M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins.
Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v.
Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful
review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations
made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. §
ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security
benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process,
which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of
impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical
impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the
impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can
perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant
can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir.
2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof
is on the claimant during the first four steps of the
inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step.
Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation.
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2013. At step
two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: history of right (non-dominant) hand surgeries;
right (non-dominant) carpal tunnel syndrome, status post
release; bipolar disorder; an anxiety disorder; and
borderline intellectual functioning. At step three, the ALJ
determined that these impairments were not severe enough,
either individually or in combination, to meet or medically
equal one of the listings in the regulations.
proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that prior to
June 7, 2015, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work, except he could
frequently handle and finger with the non-dominant hand, with
the following restrictions: could perform goal-oriented
rather than production-oriented work (i.e., the performance
of work tasks in allotted time is more important than the
pace at which the work tasks are performed); understand,
remember, and perform work tasks of a complexity consistent
with or less than GED Reasoning Level 02 (as defined in the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”)); could
perform work that involves routine tasks (i.e., no more than
occasional changes in core work duties); could have
superficial interaction with the ...