United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions
for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Anthony Lavell Wright
(Plaintiff) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of his
application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The time
for filing responsive briefs 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, the undersigned recommends that
Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #15]
be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings [DE #21] be denied, and the Commissioner's
decision be remanded for further proceedings.
OF THE CASE
applied for a period of disability and DIB on February 5,
2015, with an alleged onset date of February 28, 2012. (R.
19, 172-73.) The application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 19,
78, 90, 121.) A hearing was held on August 24, 2016, before
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joseph Booth III, who issued
an unfavorable ruling on November 21, 2016. (R. 19, 33.) The
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on
March 17, 2017. (R. 1.) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of
the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
Standard of Review
scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying
disability benefits 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). Substantial
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t
consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be
somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (first quoting
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971);
then quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642
(4th Cir. 1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in
original). “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, 76 F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations
in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial
evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the
Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and
sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence.
Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438,
439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes
a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks,
sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in
substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment;
(3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements
of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and,
if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience,
and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Albright v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during
the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant.
Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995).
At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
show that other work exists in the national economy that the
claimant can perform. Id.
the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found
Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social
Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not
engaged in substantial gainful employment since February 28,
2012, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) Next, the ALJ
determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
“degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar
spines, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, migraine
headaches, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's 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.
22.) The ALJ stated that he considered all listings and
placed particular focus on Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of
a joint), Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine), and Listing
12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). (Id.)
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity (RFC) and found that Plaintiff
the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he is limited to
frequent overhead reaching with the left and right upper
extremities. He is limited to frequent climbing of ramps and
stairs. He can have unlimited use of stepladders (defined as
no more than a height of four vertical feet), but no climbing
of ladders above that height and no climbing ropes or
scaffolds of any height. He can frequently balance,
occasionally stoop, frequently kneel, frequently crouch, and
occasionally crawl. He may have occasional exposure to
unprotected heights and frequent exposure to moving
mechanical parts, extreme cold, and extreme heat, occasional
exposure to vibration, and exposure to only moderate noise
levels. He can interact with supervisors and coworkers
frequently and can work in close proximity to, but have no
greater than occasional interaction with, the public. He is
limited to no more than frequent changes to the work setting
and the manner and method of performing the assigned work.
His time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.
(R. 24.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found
Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms
“not entirely consistent” with the evidence in
the record. (R. 30.) At step four, the ALJ concluded
Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as an
Infantry Weapons Crew Member. (R. 31.) At step five, the ALJ
identified Electronics Worker, Plastic Hospital Product
Assembler, and Shipping/Receiving Weigher as jobs with
sufficient numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff
could perform. (R. 32.)
raises two arguments on review: the ALJ's assessment of
Plaintiff's RFC is flawed and the ALJ assigned
inappropriate weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's
treating physicians. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pldgs. [DE
#16] at 3, 7-14.) These arguments break down into three
separate, but still related, arguments: (A) the ALJ assigned
improper weight to medical opinions from Plaintiff's
primary care doctor and treating rheumatologist, which
imposed greater limitations than those imposed by the ALJ and
which were consistent with each other and with
Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms
(id. at 10-11); (B) the ALJ assigned improper weight
to Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his
degenerative disc disease, duration of migraine headaches,
and PTSD symptoms (id. at 9-10); and (C) the ALJ
failed to incorporate Plaintiff's medical prescription
for an ambulatory assistive device into the RFC (id.
at 11-12). The Commissioner has replied to each argument, and
contends the ALJ correctly applied the relevant law and
regulations, reached factual findings supported by
substantial evidence, and adequately explained why he did not
assign more weight to the ...