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Higgs v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

January 10, 2019

KATISHA HIGGS, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          ROBERT B. JONES, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings' [DE-19, -24] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Katisha Higgs ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. Claimant responded to Defendant's motion [DE-26], and the time for filing a reply has expired. Accordingly, the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum and Recommendation.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for SSI on September 24, 2013, alleging disability beginning September 24, 2013. (R. 16, 164-72). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 16, 62-101, 108-112). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on January 4, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel; a witness; and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 16, 30-61). On April 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 13-29). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 162-63), and she submitted additional evidence as part of her request (R. 6). After reviewing and incorporating the additional evidence into the record, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on December 14, 2017. (R. 2-7). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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).

         III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity," i.e., currently wdrking; 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.3 d 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.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 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): understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself. Id. § 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 416.920a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors: (1) the ALJ did not adequately account for Claimant's migraines in the RFC, (2) the ALJ improperly weighed Dr. Ortega Parra's medical opinion, and (3) the ALJ's appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21] at 9-18.

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying 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 September 24, 2013, the alleged onset date. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: migraines, chronic pain syndrome, hypertension, obesity, . depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorder. Id. The ALJ also found Claimant had a non-severe impairments of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hyperlipidemia, insomnia, sinusitis, bronchitis, Vitamin D deficiency, atrial flutter, solitary kidney, prediabetes, otitis media, and vertigo. Id. 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. 18-20). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing herself. (R. 19).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform medium work[1] requiring the following limitations:

No exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat; no exposure to loud or very loud noise; no exposure to vibration; occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, odors, fumes, and gases and to poorly ventilated areas; and no exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery or hazardous moving parts. Claimant's work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace; simple work-related decisions; occasional interaction with the public; and frequent interaction with ...

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