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Ray v. Berryhill

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

March 8, 2019

JAMES CLIFTON RAY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRENCE W. BOYLE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 18, 21]. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. A hearing on this matter was held in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on March 5, 2019. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 18] is GRANTED and defendant's motion [DE 21] is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed his application in March 2014, alleging disability dating back to February 20, 2014. Plaintiffs application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 22, 2016. The ALJ issued a decision on March 15, 2017, finding that plaintiff was not disabled. In September 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final administrative decision of the Commissioner.

         In November 2017, plaintiff filed the complaint at issue, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). [DE 5]. In May 2018, plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 18]. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings in August 2018. [DE 21]. A hearing was held before the undersigned in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on March 5, 2019. [DE 25].

         DISCUSSION

         Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         An individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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 [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that 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 line of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Regulations issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson, 434 F.3d af 653. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments (Listing). See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is included in the Listing or is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the analysis proceeds to step four, where the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine whether plaintiff can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of the process, then the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         Here, the analysis ended at step five when the ALJ considered plaintiffs residual functional capacity and determined that, although plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work activities, he was able to perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff had severe impairments that did not meet or equal any Listings and that plaintiff was capable of performing medium work with some exertional limitations.

         The ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform medium work with some exertional limitations, but upon consideration of the record, the Court finds that on his alleged onset date, the most that plaintiff could perform is light work. "An ALJ has the obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherrypick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a finding of disability." Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010)). An ALJ's decision "must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations)." Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)). In other words, the ALJ must both identify evidence that supports his conclusion and "build an accurate and logical bridge from [that] evidence to his conclusion." Woods, 888 F.3d at 694 (quoting Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016)).

         Here, the ALJ failed to consider all relevant medical evidence and build an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence that she relied on to her ultimate conclusion. In particular, the . ALJ relied on an x-ray to discount the severity of the findings of multiple MRIs on plaintiffs shoulder and discounted the severity of plaintiffs limitations based on his daily activities, but failed to explain how these findings resulted in a conclusion of medium work, rather than light work. The ALJ failed to acknowledge plaintiffs testimony about the difficulties he had in conducting those limited daily activities. Instead, the ALJ based her RFC finding almost entirely on the opinions of the non-examining physicians, at the expense of other relevant medical facts in the record. A denial of benefits is not supported by substantial evidence if the ALJ "has [not] analyzed all evidence and ... sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits." Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984). The ALJ failed to do so here. It is clear from the record that, at most, plaintiff can only perform light work. Substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision and the case must be remanded.

         The decision of whether to reverse and remand for benefits or reverse and remand for a new hearing is one that "lies within the sound discretion of the district court." Edwards v. Bowen, 672 F.Supp. 230, 237 (E.D. N.C. 1987); see also Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012, 1015 (4th Cir. 1984). When "[o]n the state of the record, [plaintiffs] entitlement to benefits is wholly established," reversal for award of benefits rather than remand is appropriate. Crider v. Harris, 624 F.2d 15, 17 (4th Cir. 1980). The Fourth Circuit has held that it is appropriate for a federal court to "reverse without remanding where the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).

         The Court in its discretion finds that reversal and remand for an award of benefits is appropriate in this instance. The record plainly demonstrates that plaintiff was at most capable of performing light work on his onset date and, given plaintiffs age on his onset date, a finding of disabled is appropriate under Medical-Vocational Rule 201.01. Accordingly, there is nothing to be gained ...


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