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Armstead v. Saul

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

August 12, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          James E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge.

         In this 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.[1] The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 17, 20.

         Plaintiffs 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).

         The 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 this court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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).

         B. Standards for Disability

         The 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).

         The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

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 step.
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).[2] 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).[3]
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.[4] 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).

         C. ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff 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).

         Applying 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.

         The ALJ determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited ...

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