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Nichols v. Saul

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

July 19, 2019

JOY THOMAS NICHOLS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

          Kimberly A. Swank United States Magistrate Judge.

         This 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. Joy Thomas Nichols (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application 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 #13] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #20] be denied, and the case be remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on July 2, 2014, with an alleged onset date of May 1, 2014. (R. 49, 59.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 73-76, 81- 88, 89-90.) A hearing was held on December 19, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Anne-Marie A. Ofori-Acquaah, who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 17, 2017. (R. 16-26, 27-48.) On May 9, 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 July 12, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant civil action, seeking judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         II. Disability Determination

         In 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. 2015).

         III. ALJ's Findings

         As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the requirements for insured status under the Social Security Act (“the Act”) through December 31, 2019. (R. 18.) Therefore, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's application as to the period from May 1, 2014, the alleged onset date, through the date of the decision on May 17, 2017. (R. 18, 26.)

         Applying 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 May 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. (R. 18.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “alcoholic liver cirrhosis; osteoarthrosis of the right hip; portal hypertension; and diseases of the esophagus.” (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's hearing loss and depression to be non-severe impairments as they do not cause more than minimal work-related limitations. (Id.)

         At step 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. 19.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ...


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