United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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].
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
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).
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),
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.
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)).
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.
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).
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 ...