United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TINA M. CONDON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions
for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 15, DE 17). Pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates, entered
memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”),
wherein it is recommended that the court grant
plaintiff's motion, deny defendant's motion, and
remand to defendant for further consideration or award of
benefits. Defendant timely filed objections to the M&R,
and the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For reasons noted,
the court rejects the M&R, denies plaintiff's motion,
and grants defendant's motion.
October 5, 2012, plaintiff protectively filed applications
for disabled widow's benefits and supplemental security
income, eventually alleging disability beginning October 5,
2012. The claims were denied initially and upon
reconsideration. Plaintiff requested hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after
hearing held June 12, 2015, denied plaintiff's claims by
decision entered July 6, 2015. The Appeals Council denied
plaintiff's request for review on November 21, 2016,
leaving the ALJ's decision as defendant's final
decision. Plaintiff then filed this action seeking judicial
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). If the ALJ finds
that plaintiff hs not been working (step one) or that
plaintiff ‘s medical impairments do not meet the
severity and duration requirements of the regulations (step
two), the process ends with a finding of “not
disabled.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634
(4th Cir. 2015). 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, at step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 5,
2012. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the
following medically determinable impairments: depressive
disorder, anxiety disorder, and residual pain from disc
fractures. However, also at step two, the ALJ found that the
severity requirement was not satisfied:
The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to
significantly limit) the ability to perform basic
work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore,
the claimant does not have a severe impairment or ...