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Baker v. Saul

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

August 6, 2019

DONNA BAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 24, 26). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates entered memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion and grant defendant's motion, affirming defendant's decision denying disability benefits. Plaintiff timely filed objection to the M&R, and the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court denies plaintiff's motion and grants defendant's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         On June 23, 2015, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. In both applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning February 1, 2010. The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who held an evidentiary hearing on September 7, 2017. The ALJ administratively adjusted plaintiff's disability onset date to April 9, 2015, [1] and denied plaintiff's claims by decision entered December 28, 2017. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 22, 2018. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became defendant's final decision. Plaintiff then filed this action seeking judicial review.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review defendant's final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold factual findings of the ALJ “if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence [is] . . . such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for defendant's. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589.

         “A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling, ” including “a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). “[T]he ALJ must both identify evidence that supports his conclusion and ‘build an accurate and logical bridge from [that] evidence to his conclusion.'” Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016)); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (holding an ALJ's decision must “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion”).

         To assist in its review of defendant's denial of benefits, the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations, and the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Absent a specific and timely filed objection, the court reviews only for “clear error, ” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The ALJ's determination of eligibility for benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:

(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.

Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 9, 2015. (Transcript of the Record (“Tr.”) 18). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, allegic rhinitis, and osteoarthritis and other allied disorders. (Tr. 18). At step three, the ALJ determined these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations. (Tr. 19).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, see 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...


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