United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge.
action, plaintiff Katherine Mae Armstead
("plaintiff," or, in context,
"claimant"), who is proceeding pro se, challenges
the final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social
Security Andrew Saul ("Commissioner") denying her
applications for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental
Security Income ("SSI") on the grounds that she is
not disabled. The case is before the court on the
parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 17,
motion is in the form of a letter and was accompanied by five
additional letters (D.E. 17-1, 17-6, 17-8, 17-11 at p. 1,
17-11 at p. 2) and copies of documentary evidence, some
already of record and some not. Plaintiff subsequently filed
four additional letters (D.E. 24, 26, 28, 30), each
accompanied by documentary evidence created after the
decision at issue in this appeal. Plaintiff includes in
various of these letters arguments in support of her motion
and in opposition to the Commissioner's motion, and
arguments in support of the timeliness of various of her
submissions. The Commissioner filed a memorandum in support
of his motion (D.E. 21).
motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for
a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B). See D.E. 22, 23. For the reasons set
forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiffs motion be
allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this
case be remanded for further administrative proceedings
pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for
consideration of evidence submitted for the first time to
filed an application for DIB and an application for SSI on 23
July 2015, alleging a disability onset date of 15 February
2011 in both. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 13.
The applications were denied initially and upon
reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely
filed. Tr. 13; 178-79. On 15 March 2017, a hearing was held
before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), at
which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational
expert testified. Tr. 13; 36-85. The ALJ issued a decision
denying plaintiffs claims on 21 March 2018. Tr. 13-28.
timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 238. On
29 May 2018, the Appeals Council denied the request. Tr. 2.
At that time, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981,
416.1481. After obtaining an extension of time (see
Tr. 1), plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial
review of the ALJ's decision on 8 June 2018, pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI).
See Mot. to Proceed In Forma Pauperis
("IFP") (D.E. 1); Ord. Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E. 4);
Compl. (D.E. 5).
Standards for Disability
Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as
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." 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A); see Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A);
Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
"An individual shall be determined to be under a
disability only if his physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable
to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age,
education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of
substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see
Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Act defines a physical or
mental impairment as "an impairment that results from
anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id.
§§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).
disability regulations under the Act
("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that
the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is
To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant
has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's
medical impairments meet the [Regulations' severity and
duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical
impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the
[Regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform
her past work given the limitations caused by her medical
impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can
perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants
to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working
(step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do
not meet the severity and duration requirements of the
[Regulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of
"not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds
that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a
listed impairment [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] or
continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive
determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's
residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is
"the most" the claimant "can still do
despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her
ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1). To make
this assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the
claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which
[the ALJ is] aware," including those not labeled severe
at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find
the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her
past work. Or, if the exertion required for the
claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on
to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove,
by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can
perform other work that "exists in significant numbers
in the national economy," considering the claimant's
[RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id.
§§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2);
416.1429. The Commissioner typically offers
this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert
responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the
claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her
burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies
the application for benefits.
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir.
2015) (some bracketing original).
was 39 years old on the alleged disability onset date, 45 on
the date of the hearing, and 46 on issuance of the ALJ's
decision. See, e.g., 25 ¶ 7. Plaintiff
testified that she has at least a high school education (Tr.
26 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as a manufacturing office
assistant and foreclosure processor (Tr. 25 ¶ 6).
the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one
that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 16
¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the
following severe medically determinable impairments: lumbar
degenerative disc disease, left knee degenerative joint
disease, obesity, a major depressive disorder, and a panic
disorder with agoraphobia. Tr. 16 ¶ 3. At step three,
the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any
of the Listings. Tr. 16 ¶ 4.
determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited