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-17, DE-22] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Sieara Pattie Mills Alexander
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial
review of the denial of her applications for a period of
disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"),
and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments.
The time for filing responsive briefing has expired, 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 case be remanded for further proceedings.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed applications for a period of disability,
DIB, and SSI on October 9, 2013, alleging disability
beginning May 8, 2012. (R. 252-63). Her claims were denied
initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 86-159). A hearing
before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was
held on March 17, 2016, at which Claimant, represented by
counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared
and testified, and Claimant amended her alleged onset date to
February 15, 2013. (R. 57-85, 276). On April 13, 2016, the
ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for
benefits. (R. 35-56). The Appeals Council denied
Claimant's request for review on May 15, 2017. (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 Coffman 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 and 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a
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 V 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 perform. Id.
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) and
4l6.920a(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), 416.920a(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), 416.920a(e)(3).
case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by (1) failing to
incorporate appropriate non-exertional limitations in light
of Claimant's moderate impairment in the maintenance of
concentration, persistence, or pace; (2) improperly weighing
opinion evidence; and (3) cherrypicking evidence. Pl.'s
Mem. [DE-18] at 10-21.
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 amended alleged
onset date. (R. 40-41). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had
the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease;
obesity; vertigo; migraine headaches; fibromyalgia;
conversion disorder; bipolar disorder; anxiety disorder; and
borderline intellectual functioning. (R. 41). 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. 41-43). 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, social
functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace, with no
episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 42).
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed
Claimant's RFC, finding she had the ability to perform
light work with the following limitations:
[S]he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She cannot
be exposed to hazards. She can understand and remember
simple, routine and repetitive tasks consistent with
reasoning level 1 or 2 in the Dictionary of Occupational
Titles. She can sustain the attention and concentration
necessary to perform those tasks for 2-hour periods of time
in a non-production work environment. She can have occasional
contact with the general public. She can adapt to routine
changes in the work environment.
(R. 43-47). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not
have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant
work. (R. 47). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering
Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the
ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the
demands of other employment opportunities that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 48-49).
The ALJ's RFC Determination
individual's RFC is the capacity an individual possesses
despite the limitations caused by physical or mental
impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1),
416.945(a)(1); see also S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). "[T]he residual functional
capacity 'assessment must first identify the
individual's functional limitations or restrictions and
assess his or her work-related abilities on a
function-by-function basis, including the functions'
listed in the regulations." Mascio v. Colvin,780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting S.S.R. 96-8p). The
RFC is based on all relevant medical and other evidence in
the record and may include a claimant's own description
of limitations arising from alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3); see also
S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5. Where a claimant has
numerous impairments, including non-severe impairments, the
ALJ must consider their cumulative effect in making a
disability determination. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B);
see Hines v. Brown,872 F.2d 56, 59 (4th Cir. 1989)
("[I]n determining whether an individual's
impairments are of sufficient severity to prohibit basic work
related activities, an ALJ must consider the combined effect
of a claimant's impairments.") (citations omitted).
The ALJ has sufficiently considered the combined effects of a
claimant's impairments when each is separately discussed
by the ALJ and the ALJ also discusses a claimant's
complaints and activities. Baldwin v. Barnhart, AAA
F.Supp.2d 457, 465 (E.D. N.C. 2005) (citations omitted). The
RFC assessment "must include a discussion of why
reported symptom-related functional limitations and
restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as
consistent with the ...