United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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, the parties having
consented to proceed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
Phillip Minchew (“Plaintiff”) filed this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review
of the denial of his applications for disability and
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The time
for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending
motions are ripe for adjudication. On October 31, 2018, the
court held oral argument in the matter. The court has
carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions
and memoranda submitted by the parties. For the reasons set
forth below, the court grants Plaintiff's Motion for
Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #19], denies Defendant's
Motion for Judgment on the Pleading [DE #22], and remands the
matter to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.
OF THE CASE
applied for a period of disability and DIB on September 11,
2014, with an alleged onset date of January 31, 2014. (R. 90,
239.) The application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R.
91-105, 106-110, 124.) A hearing was held on January 5, 2017,
before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) James E.
Williams, who issued an unfavorable ruling on April 10, 2017.
(R. 19-29, 38-76.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review on December 26, 2017. (R. 1-5.) At that
time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of
the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On
February 9, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant civil action,
seeking judicial review of the final administrative decision
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Standard of Review
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
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.
1966)) (citations 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) (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).
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 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.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Albright v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 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. “The 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.
the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found
Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social
Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not
engaged in substantial gainful employment since January 31,
2014, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) Next, the ALJ
determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
“congestive heart failure (CHF); hypertension;
degenerative disc disease (DDD); obstructive sleep apnea
(OSA); obesity; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
diabetes mellitus (DM) and Crohn's disease.”
(Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's mental
impairments of anxiety disorder, organic mental disorder, and
affective disorder to be non-severe impairments. (R. 21-22.)
three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's 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.
22.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 4.02 (chronic heart failure),
4.00H (cardiovascular impairments), 1.04 (disorders of the
spine), 3.02 (chronic respiratory disorders), and 5.06
(inflammatory bowel disease). (R. 22-24.) The ALJ
also considered Plaintiff's obesity and diabetes
mellitus, which do not have their own medical listings, and
found that the record does not support a finding that
Plaintiff's combination of impairments medically equals
the criteria of any other listed impairment. (R. 23-24.)
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found
that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity
to perform sedentary work activity as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(a) in that he can lift, carry, push, or pull 10
pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. He
can sit for six hours, stand for two hours, and walk for two
hours in an eight-hour workday. He can climb ramps and stairs
frequently, but should never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. He should never stoop or crouch. He can never have
exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts.
He can ...