United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions
for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Nancy Rose Mallett
(“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of
her applications for disability and disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”). The time for filing responsive
briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for
adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative
record and the parties' filings, the undersigned
recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings [DE #20] be granted, Defendant's Motion for
Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #22] be denied, and the case be
remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.
OF THE CASE
filed an application for DIB on July 3, 2010, which was
denied on February 26, 2014. (R. 110.) Plaintiff subsequently
filed a new application for a period of disability and DIB on
March 11, 2014, with an alleged onset date of November 12,
2008. (R. 108.) Plaintiff later amended the onset date to
February 1, 2014. (R. 20.) The application was denied
initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing
was filed. (R. 109-130, 132, 178.) A hearing was held on
September 16, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Yvonne K. Stam, who issued an unfavorable
ruling on December 8, 2016. (R. 20-37, 45-72.) Plaintiff
submitted a late request to review the ruling and submitted
additional evidence to the Appeals Council. (R. 6-7, 228.) On
March 21, 2018, the Appeals Council accepted Plaintiff's
tardy filing, found the additional evidence submitted to be
outside the period at issue, and denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (R. 6-10.) At that time, the decision of
the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On May 29, 2018,
Plaintiff filed the instant civil action, seeking judicial
review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
Standard of Review
scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying
disability benefits 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). Substantial
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t
consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be
somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.
1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in original).
“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, 76
F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations in original).
Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence”
inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has
considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained
the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless
Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes
a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks,
sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in
substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment;
(3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements
of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and,
if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience,
and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Albright v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during
the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant.
Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995).
At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
show that other work exists in the national economy that the
claimant can perform. Id. “The Commissioner
typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a
vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that
incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the
Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not
disabled and denies the application for benefits.”
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir.
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). This
regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in
which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation
resulting from a claimant's mental impairments. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520a(c)(3). These four broad functional areas
also correspond to the “paragraph B” criteria of
many of the mental disorders in the Listing of Impairments
that may be considered at step three of the sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, App. 1. The ALJ is required to incorporate into the
written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on
the “special technique.” 20 C.F.R. §
preliminary matter, the ALJ considered the Commissioner's
prior decision denying Plaintiff's application for
disability benefits through June 28, 2012, but did not give
it great weight as additional evidence had been received
since that decision. (R. 20, 76-86.) The ALJ also found that
Plaintiff last met the requirements for insured status under
the Social Security Act (“the Act”) on December
31, 2014. (R. 22.) Therefore, the ALJ considered
Plaintiff's applications as to the period from February
1, 2014, to the date last insured on December 31, 2014. (R.
the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found
Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Act.
At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since February 1, 2014, the
amended alleged onset date, through the date last insured of
December 31, 2014. (R. 23.) Next, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
“osteoarthritis, spine disorder, hypertension, diabetes
mellitus, obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux
disease, disorders of the muscle/ligament/fascia, and
obesity.” (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's
hyperlipidemia, asthma, anxiety, and depression insufficient
to constitute medically determinable impairments. (R. 23-25.)
three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff'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, App. 1. (R.
26.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a
joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), and 5.06 (inflammatory
bowel disease). (R. 26-27.) Although there is no specific
listing for sleep-related breathing disorders, diabetes
mellitus, obesity, or ...