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Jones v. Berryhill

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

June 6, 2019

JOYNEKA NAOMI JONES, 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-35, -40] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Joyneka Naomi Jones (“Claimant”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) payments. 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 allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, and the matter be remanded for further proceedings.


         Claimant protectively filed an application for SSI benefits on August 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2005. (R. 183-88). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 75-103). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was held on January 29, 2015, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (R. 37-74). On March 12, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 18-36). On August 19, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-7). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the final administrative decision. (R. 605-07). The Commissioner moved to remand the case, and the court allowed the motion and remanded the case for further proceedings. (R. 614-15).

         On May 23, 2017, the Appeals Council remanded the case to an ALJ to: (1) exhibit evidence considered by the State agency at the initial level that was not in the file; (2) if necessary, obtain evidence from a medical expert related to the nature and severity of and functional limitations resulting from Claimant's impairments; (3) further evaluate Claimant's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique; (4) further evaluate whether any of Claimant's impairments, or combination of impairments, meets or equals a listing, in particular Listing 12.05, providing rationale and citations to evidence in support of the findings; (5) if warranted, give further consideration to Claimant's RFC and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations; and (6) if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Claimant's occupational base. (R. 622-25). The same ALJ held a second hearing on October 20, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel; a VE; and a Medical Expert (“ME”) appeared and testified. (R. 569-603). On December 29, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 543-68). Claimant's request for review and the Appeals Council's denial thereof do not appear to be in the administrative record; however, the Commissioner asserts the ALJ's decision is her final determination. Def.'s Mem. [DE-41] at 2. 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 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. 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. § 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. § 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. § 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the “special technique.” Id. § 416.920a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ committed the following errors: (1) failing to evaluate Listing 12.05, Intellectual Disorder; and (2) failing to properly address and analyze the February 2006 psychological testing and the opinion that Claimant had a full-scale IQ of forty-six and severe deficits in adaptive functioning. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-36] at 26-32.[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 had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the application date. (R. 548). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. (R. 548-49). The ALJ determined Claimant's medically determinable impairment of history of polysubstance abuse in sustained remission was nonsevere. (R. 549). 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. 549-50). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had resulted in a mild limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information and a moderate limitation in interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself. Id.

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that Claimant had the ability to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following restrictions:

work is limited to simple and routine tasks. The claimant should be allowed to be off task up to five percent of the workday due to moderately impaired attention and concentration. The claimant's work is limited to a low stress job defined as having no fixed production quotas, no hazardous conditions and only occasional changes in the work setting. The claimant should have no interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with coworkers with no tandem tasks. The claimant can tolerate only occasional over the shoulder supervision. The claimant would be expected to be absent no more than one day of work each month.

(R. 551-57). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (R. 552). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant had no past relevant work. (R. 557). At step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform. (R. 558).

         V. ...

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