United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge
action, plaintiff Celia Alfreda Bell ("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. The case is before the court on the
respective parties' motions for judgment on the
pleadings. D.E. 17, 20. Each party filed a memorandum (D.E.
18, 21) in support of its motion, and plaintiff filed a
memorandum (D.E. 23) in response to the Commissioner's
motion. 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. 22; 27
Nov. 2017 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will
be recommended that plaintiffs motion be allowed, the
Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be
remanded for further proceedings.
filed an application for SSI on 21 November 2013 and an
application for DIB on 17 December 2013. Transcript of
Proceedings ("Tr.") 20. In both applications she
alleged the onset of disability on 20 December 2010. Tr. 20.
The applications were denied initially and upon
reconsideration, and plaintiff timely requested a hearing
before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Tr.20.
An ALJ held the hearing on 30 June 2016. Tr. 43-98. On 12
October 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying the
applications. Tr. 20-36. In his decision, he declined to
reopen the denial on 3 January 2013 of an application for DIB
filed by plaintiff that plaintiff did not appeal and
therefore determined the period of alleged disability in
issue to start on 4 January 2013 pursuant to the principle of
res judicata. Tr. 20.
timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 14-15. On
7 February 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for
review. Tr. 1-4. At that time, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.984(d), 416.1484(d). On 6 April 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). Comp. (D.E. 1).
Standards for Disability
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).
disability regulations under the Act
("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that
the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is
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 [Regulations' severity and
duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical
impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the
[Regulations; 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
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). 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).
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. 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.
The ALJ's Findings
was 50 years old on 4 January 2013 and 54 years old on the
date of the hearing. Tr. 34 ¶ 7; 53. The ALJ found that
she has at least a high school education (Tr. 34 ¶ 8)
and past ...