United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
L. Howell, United States Magistrate Judge
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions
for summary judgment (# 8, 9). Plaintiff brought this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review
of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability
benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter
is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below,
Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted and
the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is denied.
January 2, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits.
(Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 11.)
On the same day, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for
supplemental security income. (T. 11.) In both applications,
Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 20,
2012. (T. 11.)
Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims
initially on March 7, 2013, and her claims were denied upon
reconsideration on April 18, 2013. (T. 11.) On June 4, 2013,
Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 11.)
January 8, 2015, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Charlotte, North
Carolina. (T. 11.) On April 13, 2015, the ALJ issued
a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from
December 20, 2012, through the date of his decision, April
13, 2015. (T. 22.)
requested review of the ALJ's April 13, 2015, decision.
(T. 1.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review. (T. 1-4.) On November 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed
the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's
final decision. See Compl. (# 1).
Standard for Determining Disability
individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability
payments if he or she is unable 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); accord
Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The
Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine
whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart,
434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the
five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must
consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the
claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2)
whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the
claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or
exceed the severity of one or more of the listing of
impairments contained in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to
perform any other work considering his or her age, education,
and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mastro, 270
F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.
first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is
on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v.
Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant
fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first
two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not
disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden
remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the
claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and,
thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at
claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three,
however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's
RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the
claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to
determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past
relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to
demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work.
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that
a claimant is not capable of performing past work, then the
ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.
five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform
other work. Id. The burden rests with the
Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other
work that exists in significant numbers in the national
economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience. Id.;
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner
satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the
testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), who
offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from
the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations.
Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d
at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step
five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
disabled and deny the application for disability benefits.
Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d
The ALJ's Decision
3:16-cv-00810-DLH Document 11 Filed 03/12/18 Page 3 of 14 In
his April 13, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that
Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and
1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (T. 22.) In support
of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since December 20, 2012, the alleged onset date (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1571, et seq., and 416.971
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar
degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, headaches, and
positive HIV (human immunosuppressive virus) (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525,
404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except
she must be permitted the option to sit/stand at one hour
intervals, is limited to occasional climbing and balancing,
and should avoid concentrated exposure to moving machinery
and unprotected heights.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work
(20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on July 7, 1974, and she was 38
years old, which is defined as a younger individual age
18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1563, 416.963).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education, and
she is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. ...