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Winders v. Berryhill

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

February 1, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Tracy H. Winders (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 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”). The time for filing responsive briefs 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, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #15] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #19] be denied, and the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on August 6, 2014, alleging disability beginning October 2, 2013. (R. 54-55, 68- 69, 118.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 84, 99, 114-15, 139.) On August 1, 2016, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Anne-Marie A. Ofori-Acquaah (“ALJ”), who issued an unfavorable ruling on October 24, 2016. (R. 27, 32.) Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied September 29, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).


         I. Standard of Review

          The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). “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, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of her past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, 416.920; see also Albright v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 74 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment from her alleged onset date of October 2, 2013, through the date of the ALJ's decision on October 24, 2016. (R. 19, 27.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, chronic pulmonary disease (“COPD”), and vertiginous syndrome. (R. 19.) The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments of affective disorder, anxiety, and depression were non-severe. (R. 19-20.) 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, App. 1. (R. 21.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and found that Plaintiff had the ability

to perform light work (i.e., lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently as well as sit, stand, and/or walk up to six hours each during an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she could frequently reach overhead, handle and finger with the left upper extremity; she could frequently climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; she could have no exposure to unprotected heights; and she could have occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts as well as dust, odors, fumes and other pulmonary irritants.

(R. 22.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence ...

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