United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
LAURA G. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 18, 24). Pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates entered
memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”),
wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's
motion, grant defendant's motion, and affirm
defendant's decision. Plaintiff timely filed objections
to the M&R, and the issues raised are ripe for ruling.
For the reasons that follow, the court declines to adopt the
M&R, grants plaintiff's motion, denies
defendant's motion, and remands to defendant for further
December 15, 2013, plaintiff protectively filed a Title II
application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 1,
2011. The claims were denied initially and upon
reconsideration. Plaintiff requested hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after
hearing September 29, 2016, denied plaintiff's claims by
decision entered November 1, 2016. Following the ALJ's
denial of her application, plaintiff timely filed a request
for review before the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council
denied plaintiff's request on August 29, 2017, leaving
the ALJ's decision as defendant's final decision.
Plaintiff then filed this action seeking judicial review.
Standard of Review
court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to
review defendant's final decision denying benefits. The
court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if
they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached
through application of the correct legal standard.”
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
“Substantial evidence [is] . . . such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by
“more than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less
than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368
F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial
evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting
evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute
[its] judgment” for defendant's. Craig, 76
F.3d at 589.
necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence
review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling,
” including “a discussion of which evidence the
ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the
pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.”
Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir.
2013). An ALJ's decision must “include a narrative
discussion describing how the evidence supports each
conclusion, ” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176,
189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780
F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)), and an ALJ “must build
an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion.” Id. (quoting Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).
“[R]emand is appropriate where an ALJ fails to discuss
relevant evidence that weighs against his decision.”
Ivey v. Barnhart, 393 F.Supp.2d 387, 390 (E.D. N.C.
2005) (citing Murphy v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 433, 438
(4th Cir. 1987)).
assist in its review of defendant's denial of benefits,
the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct
hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact
and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for
judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate
judge's findings and recommendations, and the court
“shall make a de novo determination of those portions
of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made.”
Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a
de novo review where a party makes only “general and
conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a
specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and
recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d
44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). Absent a specific and timely filed
objection, the court reviews only for “clear error,
” and need not give any explanation for adopting the
M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins.
Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v.
Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful
review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations
made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. §
ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security
benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process,
which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of
impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical
impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the
impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can
perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant
can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir.
2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof
is on the claimant during the first four steps of the
inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step.
Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation.
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2009.
(Transcript of the Record (“Tr.”) 22). At step
two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: depressive disorder versus major depressive
disorder, recurrent, severe; anxiety disorder; hypertension,
poor controlled; and diabetes mellitus. (Tr. 22). At step
three, the ALJ determined that these impairments were not
severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet
or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations.
proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff
had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform work at all exertional levels ...