United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
B. Jonesy Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings 7 [DE-31, -33] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Phyllis Marie Hart
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial
review of the denial of her applications for a period of
disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"),
and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments.
The time for filing responsive briefing has expired, and the
pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully
reviewed the administrative record and the motions and
memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that
Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be
denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed applications for a period of disability,
DIB, and SSI on August 19, 2016, alleging disability
beginning July 8, 2016. (R. 16, 349-58). Her claims were
denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 16, 88-153). A
hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
was held on December 1, 2017, at which Claimant, represented
by counsel, appeared and testified. (R. 16, 40-65). The ALJ
procured the testimony of a vocational expert
("VE") through post-hearing written
interrogatories. (R. 494-502). On January 22, 2018, the ALJ
issued a decision denying Claimant's request for
benefits. (R. 13-32). The Appeals Council denied
Claimant's request for review on March 15, 2018. (R.
1-6). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking
review of the now-final administrative decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding
disability benefits under the Social Security Act
("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is
limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports
the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the
decision was i reached through the
application of the correct legal standards. See Cqffman
v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 1 514, 517 (4th Cir.
1987). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any
fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial
evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would
accept as sufficient to support a particular
conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640,
642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a
"large or considerable amount of evidence,"
Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is
"more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than
a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642.
"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 v.
Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded
by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial
evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to
whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and
sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in
crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v.
Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-0 (4th Cir. 1997).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
disability determination is based on a five-step sequential
evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520 and 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a
The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial
gainful activity," i.e., currently working; and (2) must
have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or
exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified
impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent
that the claimant does not possess the residual functional
capacity to (4) perform ... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm 'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473,
475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim
fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to
the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of
proof and production during the first four steps of the
inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth
step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work
exists in the national economy which the claimant can
assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do
so in accordance with the "special technique"
described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and
416.920a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad
functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of
functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental
impairment(s): understanding, remembering, or applying
information; interacting with others; concentrating,
persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing
oneself. Id. §§404.1520a(c)(3),
416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his
written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on
the "special technique." Id. §§
case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by improperly weighing
the opinion evidence and failing to properly develop evidence
from the VE. PL's Mem. [DE-32] at 5-8.
the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the
Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date.
(R. 19). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following
severe impairments: bipolar disorder; post-traumatic stress
disorder ("PTSD"); alcohol, cocaine, and sedative
hypnotic use disorders; and status post L4-L5 lumbar fusion
with decompression. Id. However, at step three, the
ALJ concluded these 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, Appendix 1. (R. 19-21). Applying the technique
prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that
Claimant's mental impairments had resulted in moderate
limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying
information; interacting with others; ...