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Keith v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 16, 2018



          James E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge

         In this action, plaintiff Tammy Williams Keith (“plaintiff” or, in context, “the claimant”) challenges the final decision on behalf of defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on the grounds that she is not disabled.[2] The case is before the court on the respective parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 22, 25. Each party filed a memorandum in support of its motion. D.E. 23, 26. 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 D.E. 27; 19 Mar. 2018 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiff's motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on 1 August 2011, alleging a disability onset date of 17 May 2011. Transcript of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 10. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 10. An ALJ held the hearing on 18 June 2013. Tr. 20-43. On 24 July 2013, the ALJ issued a decision (Tr. 10-19) denying the applications, and plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council (Tr. 6). It denied the request for review. Tr. 1-5. On 16 October 2014, plaintiff sought review by this court. See Tammy Williams Keith v. Carolyn W. Colvin, No. 4:14-CV-199-BO (E.D. N.C. ). On 25 February 2016, this court remanded the decision for further administrative proceedings. 25 Feb. 2016 Ord. (D.E. 33) 5, Keith, No. 4:14-CV-199-BO, 2016 WL 775759, at *3 (copy at Tr. 860-64); see also J. (D.E. 34), Keith (25 Feb. 2016) (copy at Tr. 859).

The court stated in relevant part:
Finally, because remand has already been found to be appropriate, and because there is evidence in the record which would suggest that some or all of the criteria for Listing 1.04 addressing disorders of the spine might be satisfied, see e.g. Tr. 450-51, the ALJ is further directed to consider and conduct a thorough discussion of whether plaintiff satisfies the Listing 1.04 criteria so that, if necessary, meaningful review of the ALJ's decision is possible. Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295-296 (4th Cir. 2013).

24 Feb. 2016 Ord. 5, 2016 WL 775759, at *3.

         Based on the court's ruling, the Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's 24 July 2013 decision and remanded this case to an ALJ for further administrative proceedings. Tr. 857-58 (remand order); 855-56 (notice of remand). It also ordered that the instant claims be consolidated with a claim for SSI filed by plaintiff on 23 September 2014, which was found to have been rendered duplicate by the instant claims. Tr. 857.

         Pursuant to the remand, a hearing was held on 1 December 2016 before a different ALJ than the one who presided at the initial ALJ hearing. Tr. 745-80. Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified at the hearing. On 27 February 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claims. Tr. 713-33. Plaintiff did not seek review of this decision by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(d), 416.1484(d). On 12 June 2017, plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in this court, 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) (12 June 2017); Ord. Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E 5) (20 June 2017); Comp. (D.E. 6) (20 June 2017).

         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 [R]egulations' 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 residual functional capacity [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).[3] 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).[4]
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.[5] 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. The ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff was 41 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 46 years old on the date of the 2016 hearing. Tr. 731 ¶ 7; 753. The ALJ found that she has a limited education[6] (Tr. 731 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as an assembly line worker and cashier (Tr. 731 ¶ 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 her alleged onset of disability. Tr. 715 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: “degenerative disc disease; obesity; carpal tunnel syndrome/lateral epicondylitis/trigger finger, status-post releases; degenerative joint disease; diabetes mellitus; aortic aneurysm; hypertension; hyperlipidemia; adjustment disorder, with mixed anxiety/depression; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; borderline intellectual functioning.” Tr. 716 ¶ 3. At ...

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