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Youmans v. Berryhill

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

April 3, 2019

CYNTHIA YOUMANS, Plaintiff/Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-29, -31 ] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Cynthia Youmans ("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, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the J Pleadings is allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, and the matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         Claimant filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on November 17, 2015, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2015. (R. 16, 243-55). The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 16, 77-144). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on October 4, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 36-76). On December 21, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 13-35). On March 9, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-7). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.


         The 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 reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 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 (4thCir. 2001) (quoting Craigv. Chater, 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, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).


         The 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 claim:

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 perform. Id.

         When 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): understand, remember, or apply information; interact with others; concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and adapt or manage 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. §§ 404.1520a(e)(3), 416.920a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by (1) finding Claimant's impairments did not meet or equal Listing 8.06 - Hidradenitis Suppurativa ("HS"), (2) failing to consider Claimant's fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, and diabetic neuropathy, (3) failing to perform a function-by-function assessment and to provide a narrative discussion in violation of S.S.R. 96-8p, and (4) failing to account for Claimant's pain; moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace; and expected absences from work in the hypothetical and RFC. PL's Mem. [DE-30] at 9-21.[1]


         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant engaged in substantial gainful employment after the alleged onset date through the end of December 2015. (R. 18-19). Therefore, the remainder of the ALJ's decision addressed the period beginning on January 1, 2016, when Claimant was not engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 19). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: hidradenitis suppurativa, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellirus with non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, major depressive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (R. 19-20). The ALJ determined Claimant's polycystic ovarian disease was a non-medically determinable impairment and her obstructive sleep apnea, allergies, and hypercholesterolemia were non-severe impairments. (R. 20). At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant's 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. 20-22). 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; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself. (R. 21).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), finding that Claimant had the ability to perform sedentary work[2] with the following limitations:

frequent, as opposed to constant, rotation of the neck laterally and vertically; can occasionally use of the upper extremities to engage in overhead lifting, reaching, pulling, and pushing bilaterally but otherwise frequently use [] the upper extremities to lift, reach, push, and pull in all other directions; can frequently, as opposed to constantly, use the upper extremities to handle, finger, feel, [and] grasp bilaterally; can occasionally climb of stairs and ramps, kneel, and crouch; can occasionally use the lower extremities to operate foot and leg controls; can never crawl and/or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can [have] occasional exposure to temperature extremes, vibrations, wetness, dust, as well as strong odors/fumes; can never work around dangerous, moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights; and performing occupations that do not require binocular vision. Additionally, the claimant possesses the commonsense ability to understand and to complete detailed but uninvolved oral and written instructions in 2-hour intervals with a reasoning level of 3. The claimant is capable of successfully performing low stressed occupations that do not require her to complete a fixed number of production quotas and/or to perform fast-paced assembly line work. Furthermore, the claimant can have occasional superficial interaction with the general public and occasionally work in teams, in tandem, and with coworkers as well as supervision.

(R. 22-25). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were "not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record...." (R. 24). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 25-26). At step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there ...

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