United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-19, DE-21] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Avonda King
("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, 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 upheld.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed applications for a period of disability,
DIB, and SSI on April 17, 2014, alleging disability beginning
April 17, 2014. (R. 184-99). Her claims were denied initially
and upon reconsideration. (R. 50-88, 113-30). A hearing
before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was
held on August 17, 2016, at which Claimant, represented by
counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared
and testified. (R. 19-49). On November 8, 2016, the ALJ
issued a decision denying Claimant's request for
benefits. (R. 89-102). The Appeals Council denied
Claimant's request for review on June 2, 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'r 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
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
416.920a(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 improperly weighing
the opinion evidence, failing to properly consider
Claimant's pain, and failing to resolve a conflict with
the VE's testimony and the DOT. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-20] at
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. 94). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following
severe impairments: mild osteoarthritis bilaterally in the
knees and the right ankle; mild degenerative changes in the
right hand with arthropathy; and minimal lumbar scoliosis.
(R. 94-95). 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.
95). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed
Claimant's RFC, finding she had the ability to perform
medium work with the following limitations: [T]he
claimant can frequently climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She
can perform frequent manipulation with her dominant right
hand. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to
hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. (R. 95-99). At
step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did have the RFC to
perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a
cashier and coffee maker. (R. 100). Additionally, 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.