United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Nakia Covington, brought this action pursuant to the Social
Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial
review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of
Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket
Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative
record (Docket Entry 9 (cited herein as “Tr.__
”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket
Entries 11, 14; see also Docket Entry 12 (Plaintiff's
Memorandum); Docket Entry 15 (Defendant's Memorandum)).
For the reasons that follow, the Court should remand this
matter for further administrative proceedings.
applied for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of June 1,
2012. (Tr. 285-97.) Upon denial of those claims initially
(Tr. 79-114, 151-60) and on reconsideration (Tr. 115-50,
168-85), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 186-87).
Plaintiff, his attorney, witness Cherita Allsbrook, and a
vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing.
(Tr. 36-78.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did
not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 8-29.) The
Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for
review (Tr. 1-5, 284), thereby making the ALJ's ruling
the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of
rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the
following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] met the insured status requirements of the . .
. Act through December 31, 2015.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since June 1, 2012, the alleged onset date.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, intellectual learning disability
and specific learning disorders, major depressive disorder,
generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol abuse.
. . .
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
. . .
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work . . ., except [he] can occasionally crouch
and crawl. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine,
repetitive tasks. [Plaintiff] requires few if any workplace
changes and no fast paced production rate work, and
[Plaintiff] can have only occasional interaction with the
. . .
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
. . .
10. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant No. in the national economy that
[he] can perform.
. . .
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the . . . Act, from June 1, 2012, through the date of this
(Tr. 14-28 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations
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 [the Court's] review
of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.”
Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981).
Even given those limitations, the Court should remand this
case for further administrative proceedings.
Standard of Review
are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.”
Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir.
1974). Instead, the 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.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal
brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Substantial
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. 1992) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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 Cir. 2001) (brackets and internal
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 omitted).
reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” 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 [Commissioner]
(or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation
marks omitted). “The issue before [the 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 Cir. 1996).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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.
§ 423(d)(1)(A)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration has . . .
detailed regulations incorporating longstanding
medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account
a claimant's age, education, and work experience in
addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.”
Id. “These regulations establish a
‘sequential evaluation process' to determine
whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “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 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 [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at
any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award 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 each
of the first three steps, “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,
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. See Id. at 179-80. However, if the
claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work,
the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon 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.” ...