United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
DAVID A. ELLISON, Plaintiff/Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
B. JONES, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions.
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-18, DE-22] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant David A. Ellison
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial
review of the denial of his application for a period of
disability and Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB"). 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, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
is denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings is allowed, and the final decision of the
Commissioner is affirmed.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for a period of disability
and DIB on October 27, 2014, alleging disability beginning
January 8, 2014. (R. 165-66). His claim was denied initially
and upon reconsideration. (R. 53-83). A hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on
February 17, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel,
and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and
testified. (R. 33-52). On May 15, 2017, the ALJ issued a
decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R.
10-30). The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for
review on July 25, 2017. (R. 1-5). Claimant then filed a
complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final
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 Cofftnan 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 Craigv.
Chater, 16 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 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. § 4O4.l52Oa(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):
understand, remember, or apply information; interact with
others; concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and adapt or
manage oneself. Id. § 4O4.l52Oa(c)(3). The ALJ
is required to incorporate into his written decision
pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special
technique." Id. § 404.152Oa(e)(3).
case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by failing to
appropriately weigh a 100% disability rating by the
Department of Veterans Affairs (the "VA") connected
to Claimant's post-traumatic stress disorder
("PTSD"). PL's Mem. [DE-19] at 14-20.
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. 15). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe
impairments of PTSD and degenerative disc disease, and the
non-severe impairments of sleep disorder and depression. (R.
15-16). 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.
16-19). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations,
the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had
resulted in moderate limitations in interacting with others,
understanding, remembering, or applying information,