United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge.
Brandon Alexander Teele Moore ("Plaintiff) brought this
action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the
Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42
U.S.G §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial
review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The
parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the
administrative record has been certified to the Court for
protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on November
25, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2013.
(Tr. at 18, 280-85, 286-95.) His applications were denied
initially (Tr. at 106-27, 168-72) and upon reconsideration
(Tr. at 128-67, 180-99). Thereafter Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 200-03.) On June 26, 2017,
Plaintiff, along with his attorney and an impartial
vocational expert ("VE"), attended the subsequent
hearing. (Tr. at 76-105.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr.
at 15-35), and, on January 12, 2018, the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby
making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 3-8, 279).
law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits."
Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir.
2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is
"extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646
F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to
try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch, 495
F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing
court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are
supported by substantial evidence and were reached through
application of the correct legal standard." Hancock
v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal
evidence means 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d
31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of
more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat
less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel,
270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cit. 2001) (internal citations and
quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to
justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a
jury, then there is substantial evidence."
Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks
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
[ALJ]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal
brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where
conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to
whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that
decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d
at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing court],
therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but
whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not
disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached
based upon a correct application of the relevant law."
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Or. 1996).
undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that
"[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context,
"disability" means the '"inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
12 months." Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. §
Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability
claims." Hancock 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)).
"Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence,
whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of
disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an
impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed
impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and
(5) if not, could perform any other work in the national
finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in
this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation
and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]he first step
determines whether the claimant is engaged in
'substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is
working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if
the claimant is 'severely' disabled. If not, benefits
are denied." Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157,
159 (4th Cir. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the
first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets
or equals a "listed impairment" at step three,
"the claimant is disabled." Mastro 270
F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one
and two, but falters at step three, i.e., "[i]f a
claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal
or exceed a listed impairment," then "the ALJ must
assess the claimant's residual functional capacity
('RFC')." Id. at 179. Step four then
requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the
claimant can "perform past relevant work"; if so,
the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at
179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to
return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth
step, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a
significant No. of jobs exist which the claimant could
perform, despite the claimant's impairments."
Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this
determination, the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant
is able to perform other work considering both [the
claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational
capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to
adjust to a new job." Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65.
If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its
"evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant]
remains able to work other jobs available in the
community," the claimant qualifies as disabled.
Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.
present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" since his alleged
onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met
his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process.
(Tr. at 20.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that
Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:
Ehlers-Danlos syndrome - hypermobility type (EDS); anxiety
disorder; peripheral neuropathy; obesity.
(Id.) The ALJ found at step three that none of
these impairments, individually or in combination, met or
equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 21-23.) Therefore, the
ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could
perform sedentary work with further limitations.
Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:
Has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except
the claimant must use a cane for ambulation; he can
frequently handle and finger items with the bilateral upper
extremities; he can frequently climb ramps and stairs; he can
never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can occasionally
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; [he] can never work
at unprotected height; he is limited to the performance of
simple, routine, repetitive tasks; he is limited to simple
work-related decisions; and while he can never interact with
the public, he can occasionally interact with coworkers and
(Tr. at 23.) Under step four of the analysis, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff did not have any past relevant
work. (Tr. at 32.) However, the ALJ concluded at step five
that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and
RFC, along with the testimony of the VE regarding those
factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs available in the
national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at
now raises four challenges to the ALJ's decision. First,
Plaintiff argues that "[t]he ALJ performed an improper
listing analysis" (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #15] at 5) in
finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 11.14. Second,
Plaintiff contends that "[t]he ALJ improperly evaluated
[Plaintiffs] credibility." (Id. at 10.) Third,
Plaintiff asserts that "[t]he ALJ's assigned RFC is
not supported by substantial evidence and the analysis
frustrates meaningful review." (Id. at 13.)
Fourth, Plaintiff maintains that "[t]he ALJ did not
adequately explain weight given to medical opinions."
(Id. at 15.) After a careful review of the record,
the Court finds no
first contends that "the ALJ . . . conducted an improper
listing analysis in finding that [Plaintiff] did not meet
[L]isting 11.14" (Peripheral Neuropathy). QA at 5.) In
particular, Plaintiff asserts that his EDS meets the
requirements of paragraph B of Listing 11.14, in that it
causes him to suffer "marked limitation in physical
functioning" (id. at 6) and "marked
restrictions in interacting with others and concentration,
persistence or pace" (id. at 7). According to
Plaintiff, the ALJ's analysis regarding Listing 11.14
"frustrates meaningful review" by this Court,
because it "is conclusory," "does not cite to
any evidence in the record," and "only addresses
the [paragraph] A criteria" of Listing 11.14. Plaintiffs
contentions do not warrant relief.
three of the sequential analysis, the ALJ considers whether
any impairment meets or equals one or more of the impairments
listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. The listings define
impairments which are so severe that they would "prevent
an adult, regardless of his age, education, or work
experience, from performing any gainful activity, not just
substantial gainful activity.5" Sullivan v.
Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). For a claimant to
demonstrate that he qualifies for a listing, and therefore is
entitled to a conclusive presumption of disabled status, he
must meet all of the medical criteria specified for that
listing. Id. at 531. An impairment that meets only
some of the listing criteria, no matter how severe, will not
qualify. Id. Similarly, "[f]or a claimant to
qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment,
or combination of impairments, is 'equivalent' to a
listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in
severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed
impairment." Id. (emphasis in original).
at step three, an ALJ is not requited to explicitly identify
and discuss every possible listing; however, he is compelled
to provide a coherent basis for his step three determination,
particularly where the "medical record includes a fair
amount of evidence" that a claimant's impairment
meets a disability listing. Radford v. Colvin, 734
F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). Where such evidence exists but
is rejected without discussion, "insufficient legal
analysis makes it impossible for a reviewing court to
evaluate whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
findings." Id. (citing Cook v.
Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168,1173 (4th Cir. 1986)). Thus, the
ALJ's decision must include "a sufficient discussion
of the evidence and explanation of its reasoning such that
meaningful judicial review is possible." Meador v.
Colvin, No. 7:13-CV-214, 2015 WL 1477894, at *3 (W.D.
Va. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Smith v. Astrue, 457 F.
App'x 326, 328 (4th Cir. 2011)). However, it is possible
that even "[a] cursory explanation" at step three
may prove "satisfactory so long as the decision as a
whole demonstrates that the ALJ considered the relevant
evidence of record and there is substantial evidence to
support the conclusion." Id.
order to meet Listing 11.14B, a claimant must demonstrate:
Marked limitation in physical functioning, and in
one of the following:
1. Understanding, remembering, or applying information; or
2. Interacting with others; or
3. Concentrating, persisting, or maintaining ...