United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
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. Roycelia Leilan Pender
(“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 #15] be granted, Defendant's Motion for
Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #17] 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 April 1, 2010, which was
denied on August 22, 2013. (R. 62-84.) Plaintiff subsequently
filed a new application for a period of disability and DIB on
August 29, 2013,  with an alleged onset date of August 30,
2012. (R. 96-98.) The application was denied initially and
upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed.
(R. 96-112, 113, 139-40.) A hearing was held on June 20,
2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
Joseph L. Brinkley, who issued an unfavorable ruling on
October 5, 2017. (R. 13-27, 35-61.) On April 13, 2018, the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.
(R. 1-5.) At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the
final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.981. On June 15, 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.
preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the
requirements for insured status under the Social Security Act
(“the Act”) on December 31, 2015. (R. 16.)
Therefore, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's application as
to the period from August 30, 2012, to the date last insured
on December 31, 2015. (Id.)
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 August 30, 2012, the
alleged onset date, through the date last insured of December
31, 2015 (R. 16.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the
following severe impairments: “degenerative disc
disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, headaches, and
obesity.” (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's
thyroid cancer non-severe where the “medical and other
evidence establishes only a slight abnormality or a
combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more
than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to
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.
16.) The ALJ analyzed Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine).
(Id.) Although there are no specific listings for
hypertension, diabetes mellitus, headaches, or obesity, the
ALJ evaluated these impairments under listings for other body
systems and found that the requirements were not met. (R.
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity ...