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Yousef v. Saul

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

July 22, 2019

JAMAL A. YOUSEF, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          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-47, -54] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Jamal A. Yousef ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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, 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 this matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on December 18, 2014, alleging disability beginning August 18, 2011. (R. 12, 208-11). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 12, 72-117). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on April 6, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 35-67). On August 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 9-32). Claimant requested review by the Appeals Council and submitted additional medical evidence. (R. 33-34, 204-07). The Appeals Council found the evidence did not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision, did not consider and exhibit the evidence, and denied Claimant's request for review on April 14, 2018. (R. 1-5). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 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). 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): understand, remember, or apply information; interact with others; concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and adapt or manage oneself. Id. § 404.1520a(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).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by (1) failing to consider whether Claimant's conversion disorder met or equaled Listing 12.07, (2) failing to appropriately weigh the medical opinions, and (3) failing to include all of Claimant's non-exertional impairments in the RFC. Pl's Mem. [DE-48] at 24-32.[1]

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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 from the alleged onset date, August 18, 2011, through the date last insured, March 31, 2017. (R. 15). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of adjustment disorder, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, right peroneal sensory neuropathy, and status post bilateral tarsal tunnel surgery. Id. The ALJ also found that Claimant did not have a medically determinable impairment with respect to a conversion disorder. Id. 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. 15-17). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had resulted in mild limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information and adapting or managing oneself, and moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace and interacting with others. (R. 16-17).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding he had the ability to perform light work[2] with the following limitations: occasional postural activities except for no climbing of ladders and/or ropes, and frequent handling and/or fingering with the right hand; no more than occasional decision making or changes in the work setting; no quotas or fast-paced production work; no more than brief and incidental contact with the general public; and no tandem work or other work in close coordination with others in a team-type approach. (R. 17-25). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 25). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 25-26).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Conversion Disorder

         Claimant contends the ALJ erred by failing to consider whether his conversion disorder meets or equals Listing 12.07. Pl's Mem. [DE-48] at 24-29. The Commissioner contends the ALJ did not have to consider Claimant's conversion disorder at step three because it was not found to be a medically determinable impairment at step two, and, in any event, Claimant failed to demonstrate the impairment meets or equals Listing 12.07. Def.'s Mem. [DE-55] at 6-10.

         1. Step Two-Severity

         The court begins at step two because the Commissioner contends the ALJ's determination that Claimant's conversion disorder was not a medically determinable impairment is dispositive at step three, such that the ALJ was not required to consider ...


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