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Bell v. Berryhill

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

April 17, 2018



          James E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge

         In this 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.[2] 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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).

         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 [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 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 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 ...

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