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Hayes v. Saul

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

July 22, 2019

DEEDEE KAY HAYES, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
ANDREW 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-20, -22] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant DeeDee Kay Hayes ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her applications for a period of 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 motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be upheld.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on September 7, 2014, alleging disability beginning October 19, 2013. (R. 18, 203-19). Her application for SSI was denied initially for excess resources, and Claimant did not appeal that decision. (R. 101-08, 113). Her claims for a period of disability and DIB were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 18, 68-100, 109-12, 114-18). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on August 29, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by a non-attorney representative, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 18, 36-59). On October 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 15- 35). Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (R. 201-02), and she submitted additional evidence as part of her request (R. 2). The Appeals Council determined that the additional evidence did not relate to the period at issue, and therefore it did not affect the decision. Id. The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on June 8, 2018. (R. 1-7). 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): understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing 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 following errors: (1) the ALJ failed to find that Claimant's impairment meets Listing 12.02, and (2) the ALJ failed to assist Claimant, who was represented by a non-attorney representative at the hearing, in the development of the record. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21] at 6-13.

         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 October 19, 2013, the alleged onset date, to March 31, 2014, her date last insured. (R. 20). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: post concussive syndrome, history of recurrent colitis, degenerative disc disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD")/adjustment disorder. Id. The ALJ also found that Claimant's fibromyalgia was not a medically determinable impairment. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded these 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. 21-23). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in a mild limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information; a moderate limitation in interacting with others; a moderate limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and no limitation in adapting or managing herself. (R. 21-22).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] except that she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; have no concentrated exposure to bright lights, loud noises, or extreme heat; have no exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; perform and sustain simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace; have no requirement for math computations; and have occasional superficial contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. (R. 23-28). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical and other evidence. (R. 27).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a retail store owner and store manager. (R. 28). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant was capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy through the date last insured. (R. 28-29).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ did not err in discussing Listing 12.02.

         Claimant contends the ALJ improperly evaluated whether her impairment met Listing 12.02 because the ALJ found that her 2014 IQ scores were invalid. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21] at 6-9. The court disagrees.

         In determining whether a listing is met or equaled, an ALJ must consider all evidence in the case record about the claimant's impairments and their effects on the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(c). Where a claimant has a severe impairment and the record contains evidence that symptoms related to the impairment "correspond to some or all of the requirements of a listing," it is incumbent upon the ALJ to identify the listing and to compare the claimant's symptoms to each of the listing's requirements. See Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir. 1986). While it may not always be necessary for the ALJ to perform a "step-by-step" analysis of the listing's criteria, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant's symptoms in light of the specified medical criteria and explain his rationale. Williams v. Astrue, No. 5:11-CV-409-D, 2012 WL 4321390 (E.D. N.C. Sept. 20, 2012). An ALJ's failure to compare a claimant's symptoms to the relevant listings or to explain, other than in a summary or conclusory fashion, why the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing "makes it impossible for a reviewing court to evaluate whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings." Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Cook, 783 F.2d at 1173.

         In order to meet Listing 12.02, a claimant must show a neurocognitive disorder satisfied by:

A. Medical documentation of a significant cognitive decline from a prior level of functioning in one or more of ...

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