United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
B. JONES, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
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.
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. § 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
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).
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]
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).
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's
RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform medium
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 ...