United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
Reidinger, United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's
Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 13] and the Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 15].
Plaintiff, Richard Joseph Sneden (“Plaintiff”),
filed applications for disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”)
and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act,
alleging an onset date of October 31, 2011. [Transcript
(“T.”) at 21]. The Plaintiff's application
was denied initially and upon reconsideration.
[Id.]. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was
held on August 17, 2015 before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). [T. at 45, 118]. On October 27, 2015,
the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff
benefits, finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within
the meaning of the Act since October 31, 2011. [T. at 12-28].
The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for
review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. [T. at 1-6]. The Plaintiff has
exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this
case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is
limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner
applied the correct legal standards, Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
“When examining [a Social Security Administration]
disability determination, a reviewing court is required to
uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct
legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are
supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v.
Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012).
“Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d
650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence
but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v.
Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not
undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal
quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather,
“[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds
to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's
decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To
enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he
record should include 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.
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
“disability” entitling a claimant to benefits
under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is
“[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). The Social Security Administration Regulations
set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing
applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th
Cir. 2015). “If an applicant's claim fails at any
step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the
subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is
on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first
four steps. Id.
one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's
application is denied regardless of the medical condition,
age, education, or work experience of the claimant.
Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the
case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a
severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical
or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which
significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform
work activities, then no severe impairment is established and
the claimant is not disabled. Id.
three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the
claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed
impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404,
Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically
deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work
experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step
four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an
administrative assessment of “the most” a
claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing
basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically
determinable impairments and the extent to which those
impairments affect the claimant's ability to perform
work-related functions. SSR 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.
four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations
prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780
F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her
past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.
Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the
burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the
Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant's
age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can
perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers
in the national economy. Id.; Hines v.
Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The
Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the
testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical
that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780
F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her
burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the
application for benefits must be denied. Id.
Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this
case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the
Plaintiff at the fifth step.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date,
October 31, 2011. [T. at 23]. At step two, the ALJ found that
the Plaintiff has severe impairments including depression,
panic disorder, and cannabis abuse. [T. at 24]. At step
three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the Listings. [T. at 27]. The ALJ then
determined that the Plaintiff, notwithstanding his
impairments, has the RFC:
[T]o perform a full range of work at all exertional levels
but with the following nonexertional limitations: the
[Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds and can have no exposure to unprotected heights.
The [Plaintiff] can have occasional interaction with
supervisors, coworkers, and the public, and is able to
understand, remember, and carry out simple one or two step
instructions or tasks free of fast-paced or team-dependent
production requirements involving simple-work related
decisions and occasional, if any, work place changes. The
[Plaintiff] should not be openly exposed to controlled
substances or prescription medications such as work in a law
enforcement evidence facility, forensic lab, pharmaceutical
manufacturing plant, medical facility, or pharmacy. The
[Plaintiff] would be off task a maximum of ten percent of the
[T. at 30-1].
identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as a mortgage
clerk and mortgage closer. [T. at 37]. The ALJ observed at
the fourth step, however, that the Plaintiff ...