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Minchew v. Berryhill

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

February 21, 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, 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.


         Plaintiff 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).


         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 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).

         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 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. 2015).

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying 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.)

         At step 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.)

         Prior 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 ...

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