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Jones v. Saul

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

July 24, 2019

JERMAINE JONES, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          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-17, -23] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Jermaine Jones ("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 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, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on June 29, 2016, alleging disability beginning May 2, 2015. (R. 13, 236-39). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 13, 79-109). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on November 30, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 13, 31-78). On May 30, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 10-30). On July 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-6). 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.FR. § 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 by the ALJ: (1) the ALJ's decision violates Bird by failing to accord substantial weight to the VA disability rating; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to account for the vocationally limiting effects of Claimant's frequent bathroom usage in the RFC; and (3) the ALJ failed to evaluate probative evidence when assessing Claimant's social functioning. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-18] at 9-14.

         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 since May 2, 2015. (R. 15). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: obesity; post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with sleep disturbance; depressive disorder; migraine headaches; history of colon cancer; status post (s/p) bowel resection; plantar fasciitis; pes planus; s/p bilateral bunionectomies with residual symptoms; inguinal hernia; obstructive sleep apnea (OSA); degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the cervical spine; disc narrowing of the lumbar spine; and tinnitus bilaterally. Id. However, 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. 15-17).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform medium work, [1] specifically that Claimant can lift/carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; sit, stand, and walk for six hours; and push/pull as much as he can lift/carry. (R. 17-23). The ALT also imposed the following limitations: occasional climbing; frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; frequent overhead reaching bilaterally; occasional exposure to atmospheric conditions, moving mechanical parts, and high, exposed places; exposure up to and including moderate noise; occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers, but only incidental interaction with the public, defined as one hour per day and no more than ten minutes during any one sustained period; limited to "unskilled work," as defined in Social Security Ruling 83-10; and limited to occasional changes to the manner and method of ...


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