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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

March 20, 2019

LAURA G. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This 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 proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         On 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.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         The 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.

         “A 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)).

         To 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. § 636(b)(1).

         The 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).

         In the 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. (Tr. 23).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at all exertional levels ...


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