United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
WILLIAM D. COLE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
L. Howell, United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions
for summary judgment (# 10, 14). Plaintiff brought this
action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial
review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for
disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and
the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth
below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion for
summary judgment be DENIED and the Commissioner's motion
for summary judgment be GRANTED.
April 1, 2010, plaintiff filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits.
(Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 24.)
On the same date, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for
supplemental security income. (T. 24.) In both applications,
Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of November 30,
2009. (T. 24.) Both applications were denied in a decision
dated August 30, 2012. (T. 24.)
September 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review. (T.
24.) On August. 27, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the
August 30, 2012 decision and remanded the case to an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for further
proceedings. (T. 24.) The Appeals Council determined that the
limitation of “an option to sit or stand”
required clarification, including the frequency and length of
time, and the limitation of “minimal exposure to a
noisy environment where hearing is a work
qualification” was not included in the hypothetical
question posed to the vocational expert
(“VE”). (T. 24.)
appeared and testified at a hearing held on May 14, 2015, in
Charlotte, North Carolina. (T. 24.) At the hearing, Plaintiff
amended his alleged onset date of disability to January 1,
2012. (T. 24.) On March 31, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant
action. See Compl. (# 1)
Standard for Determining Disability
individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability
payments if he or she is unable 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); accord
Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The
Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine
whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart,
434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the
five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must
consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the
claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2)
whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the
claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or
medically equal the severity of one or more of the listing of
impairments contained in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to
perform any other work considering his or her age, education,
and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mastro, 270
F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.
first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is
on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v.
Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant
fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first
two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not
disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden
remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the
claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and,
thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at
claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three,
however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's
RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the
claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to
determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past
relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to
demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work.
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that
a claimant is not cable of performing past work, then the ALJ
proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.
five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform
other work. Id. The burden rests with the
Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other
work that exists in significant numbers in the national
economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience. Id.;
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner
satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the
testimony of a VE, who offers testimony in response to a
hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the
claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635;
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner
satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find
that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application
for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635;
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.
The ALJ's Decision
October 6, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that
Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 233(d), and
1614(a)(3)(4) of the Social Security Act. (T. 38.) In support
of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through September 30, 2013.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 1, 2012, the amended alleged onset
date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and
416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments:
cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, lumbar facet
arthropathy, hearing loss, peripheral vascular disease,
obesity,  and anxiety (20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525,
404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except
for the following limitations: no climbing of ropes, ladders,
or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; a
sit/stand option where he can change positions twice an hour;
no overhead lifting greater than 10 pounds; frequent
bilateral fingering; no noisy environment where hearing is an
essential work qualification; allows a cane for ambulation
but not as a requirement in the course of work; simple,
routine and repetitive tasks; and occasional interaction with
the public, coworkers, and supervisors.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work
(20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on September 14, 1971, and he was
38 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age
18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has a limited education, and he is able to
communicate in English (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564 and
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination of disability because using the
Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding
that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or
not the claimant has transferable job skills (See
Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 82-41 and 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that he can perform (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a) 416.969, and
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2012, through
October 6, 2015 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and
Standard of Review
42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that an
individual may file an action in federal court seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social
security benefits. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559,
561 (4th Cir. 2006). The scope of judicial review is limited
in that the district court “must uphold the factual
findings of the Secretary if they are supported by
substantial evidence and were reached through application of
the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater,
76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); accord Monroe, 826
F.3d at 186. “Substantial evidence is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589
(internal quotation marks omitted). It is more than a
scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence.
federal district court reviews the Commissioner's final
decision, it does not “re-weigh conflicting evidence,
make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment
for that of the Secretary.” Id. Accordingly,
the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is
disabled but, rather, whether the Commissioner's decision
that he was not disabled is supported by substantial evidence
in the record, and whether the ALJ reached his decision based
on the correct application of the law. Id.
The ALJ's mental RFC finding is supported by substantial
initially argues that the ALJ failed to provide a full
function-by-function analysis of the nonexertional mental
functions associated with his mental impairments. Pl.'s
Mem. Supp. (# 11) at 6-12. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ
did not evaluate his mental impairments in a manner
consistent with the Fourth Circuit's holding in
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015).
Id. at 8-9. Finally, relying on SSR 96-8p, Plaintiff
contends that the ALJ's decision must be reversed.
Id. at 6-7.
defined as “the most [a claimant] can do despite [his
or her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). “The RFC 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[.]” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996); accord Mascio, 780
F.3d at 636. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p
provides that the ALJ's RFC “assessment must
include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence
supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g.
laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g. daily
activities, observations).” Mascio, 780 F.3d
at 636 (quoting SSR 96-8p).
formulating a RFC, the ALJ is not required to discuss each
and every piece of evidence. See Reid v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir.
2005) (per curiam)). The ALJ is, however, required to build a
logical bridge from the evidence of record to his conclusion.
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189; see also Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
Mascio, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held
that limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace cause
work-related limitations with staying on task, and while the
ALJ may find that no limitations are required, an ...