United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge.
action, plaintiff James Powell ("plaintiff or, in
context, "claimant") challenges the final decision
of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A.
Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying his application
for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
("DIB") on the grounds that he is not disabled. The
case is before the court on the parties' motions for
judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 12, 16. Both filed memoranda
in support of their respective motions. D.E. 13, 17. 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 22 Feb. 2018 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.
filed an application for DIB on 3 December 2013, alleging a
disability onset date of 10 June 2011. Transcript of
Proceedings ("Tr.") 20. The application was denied
initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a
hearing was timely filed. Tr. 20. On 19 July 2016, a hearing
was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ")
at which plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a
vocational expert testified. Tr. 35-62. On 30 August 2016,
the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs application. Tr.
timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 183. On 9
June 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review.
Tr. 1. At that time, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §
404.981. On 8 August 2017, plaintiff commenced this
proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Mot. to
Proceed In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") (D.E.
1); Order Denying IFP Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).
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); 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). 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).
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
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). 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.
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.
was 53 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 58
years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 28 ¶ 7; 42.
The ALJ found that he has at least a high school education
(Tr. 28 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as a parcel
post clerk handler (Tr. 28 ¶ 6).
the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4),
the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since 10 June 2011, the alleged
disability onset date. Tr. 22 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable
impairments that were severe within the meaning of the
Regulations: affective mood disorder; anxiety-related
disorder; alcohol, substance addiction disorder; and drugs;
substance addiction disorder. Tr. 22 ¶ 3. At step three,
the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any
of the Listings. Tr. 23 ¶4.
next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full
range of work at all exertional levels, but with the
following nonexertional limitations:
the performance of only simple, routine tasks; making only
simple work-related decisions; no transactional interaction
with the general public; and no close, ...