United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge
action, plaintiff Sharon Allen ("plaintiff or, in
context, "claimant") challenges the final decision
of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A.
Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her application
/for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
("DIB") on the grounds that she is not disabled.
The case is before the court on the parties' motions for
judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 18, 23. Both filed memoranda
in support of their respective motions. D.E. 19, 24. The
motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for
a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B). See 12 Dec. 2018 Text Ord. For the
reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that
plaintiffs motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion
be denied, and this case be remanded.
filed an application for DIB on 3 May 2013, alleging a
disability onset date of 6 April 2013. Transcript of
Proceedings ("Tr.") 11. The application was denied
initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a
hearing was timely filed. Tr. 11. On 26 October 2016, a
hearing was held before an administrative law judge
("ALJ") at which plaintiff, who was represented by
counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 11, 31-85. On
28 November 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying
plaintiffs application. Tr. 11-25.
timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 184, 186.
On 22 August 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for
review. Tr. 1. At that time, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §
26 October 2017, plaintiff commenced this proceeding for
judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). See Mot. to Proceed In
Forma Pauperis ("IFP") (D.E. 1); Ord. Denying
IFP Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).
STANDARDS FOR DISABILITY
Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as
the "inability 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); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203
(4th Cir. 1995). "An individual shall be determined to
be under a disability only if his physical or mental
impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not
only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering
his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other
kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Act defines
a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that
results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques."
Id. § 423(d)(3).
disability regulations under the Act
("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that
the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is
To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant
has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's
medical impairments meet the [Regulations' severity and
duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical
impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the
[R]egulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform
her past work given the limitations caused by her medical
impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can
perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants
to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working
(step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do
not meet the severity and duration requirements of the
[R]egulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of
"not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds
that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a
listed impairment [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] or
continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this
step. If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive
determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's
residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is
"the most" the claimant "can still do
despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her
ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1). To make this
assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the
claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which
[the ALJ is] aware," including those not labeled severe
at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find
the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her
past work. Or, if the exertion required for the
claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on
to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove,
by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can
perform other work that "exists in significant numbers
in the national economy," considering the claimant's
[RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id.
§§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2);
Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the
testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical
that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the
Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not
disabled and denies the application for benefits.
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir.
was 50 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 54
years old on the date of the hearing and issuance of the
ALJ's decision. Tr. 24 ¶ 7; 36. The ALJ found that
she has at least a high school education (Tr. 24 ¶
8) and past
relevant work as a program analyst, logistics
specialist/logistics technician, and maintenance and material
manager (Tr. 23 ¶ 6).
the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4),
the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since 6 April 2013, the alleged
disability onset date. Tr. 13 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable
impairments that were severe within the meaning of the
Regulations: degenerative joint disease, status-post
surgeries of the left knee; carpal tunnel syndrome;
hypertension; hiatal hernia; irritable bowel syndrome;
migraines; nonobstructive coronary artery disease;
cardiac-related syncope; degenerative disc disease;
depression/major depressive disorder; and post-traumatic
stress disorder ("PTSD"). Tr. 13 ¶ 3. At step
three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals any of the Listings. Tr. 14 ¶ 4.
next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a
limited range of work at the light exertional level, as
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds the claimant has the [RFC] to perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b),  with the following provisos:
the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but no
climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and/or crouch, but no
crawling. The claimant can occasionally push, pull and/or
operate foot controls with the lower extremities. The
claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace
hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected
heights. The claimant can understand and perform simple,
routine, repetitive tasks, and she can maintain
concentration, persistence, and pace to remain on task for 2
hour periods over a typical 8-hour workday, in a low stress
setting, further defined to mean no production-pace or
quota-based work, rather she requires a goal-oriented job
primarily dealing with things rather than people, with no
more than occasional social interaction with supervisors
and/or co-workers, no work with the public as part of job,
such as sales or negotiation, though incidental or casual
contact with the public as it might arise is not precluded.
Tr. 17 ¶ 5.
on his determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at
step four that plaintiff was unable to perform her past
relevant work. Tr. 23 ¶ 6. At step five, citing the
testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that there
were jobs in the national economy existing in significant
numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the
occupations of housekeeper, clerical assistant, and
inspector/hand packager. Tr. 24-25 ¶ 10. The ALJ
accordingly concluded that plaintiff ...