United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
B. JONES, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-19, -25] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial
review of the denial of his application for a period of
disability and Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB"). Claimant filed a response to
Defendant's motion, [DE-27], and the pending motions are
ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the
administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted
by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's
Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the
matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on
December 30, 2015, alleging disability beginning December 29,
2014. (R. 170-71). His claim was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (R. 84-105). A hearing was held before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on October 6,
2016, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a
vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified.
(R. 34-83). On January 12, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision
denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 7-28).
Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by
the Appeals Council, (R. 167-69), and after incorporating
additional evidence into the record, (R. 2677-718), the
Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review, (R.
1-6). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking
review of the now-final administrative decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding
disability benefits under the Social Security Act
("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is
limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports
the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the
decision was reached through the application of the correct
legal standards. See Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d
514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the
Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial
evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a
reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a
particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368
F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is
not a "large or considerable amount of evidence,"
Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is
"more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than
a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642.
"In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court
should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for
that of the [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel,
270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded
by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial
evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to
whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and
sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in
crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v.
Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
disability determination is based on a five-step sequential
evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520
under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:
The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial
gainful activity," i.e., currently working; and (2) must
have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or
exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified
impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent
that the claimant does not possess the residual functional
capacity to (4) perform ... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "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 of proof and production during the first four steps of
the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth
step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work
exists in the national economy which the claimant can
assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do
so in accordance with the "special technique"
described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This
regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in
which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation
resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s):
activities of daily living; social functioning;
concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of
decompensation. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ
is required to incorporate into his written decision
pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special
technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).
case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1)
failure to give substantial weight to Claimant's
Department of Veteran's Affairs ("VA")
disability rating in violation of Bird v. Commissioner of
Social Security Administration, 699 F.3d 337 (4th Cir.
2012); (2) failure to provide adequate reasons for assigning
little weight to the opinion of Claimant's treating
physician; and (3) failure to properly evaluate
Claimant's ability to respond appropriately to
supervisors, coworkers, and the general public with respect
to the RFC. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-20]at 1.
the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the
Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date.
(R. 12-13). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease;
posttraumatic stress disorder; and major depression. (R.
13-14). The ALJ also found Claimant's history of
substance abuse to be a non-severe impairment. (R. 14).
However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments
were not severe enough, either individually or in
combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R.
15-16). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations,
the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had
resulted in moderate restriction in activities of daily
living, marked difficulties in social functioning, and
moderate difficulties with regard to concentration,
persistence, or pace, with ...