United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Va Vue Vang, 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 claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Docket Entry 2.)
Defendant has filed the certified administrative record
(Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as “Tr. ___”)), and
both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 15, 18;
see also Docket Entry 16 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket
Entry 19 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that
follow, the Court should remand this matter for further
applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of April 1,
2010. (Tr. 178-84.) Upon denial of that application initially
(Tr. 62-68, 85-88) and on reconsideration (Tr. 69-84, 90-93),
Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 94-95).
Plaintiff, her attorney, a Hmong interpreter, and a
vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing.
(Tr. 32-61.) The ALJ subsequently determined that Plaintiff
did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 7-21.) The
Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for
review (Tr. 1-6, 177, 246-47), thereby making the ALJ's
ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of
rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. [Plaintiff] last met the insured status requirements of
the . . . Act on December 31, 2014.
2. [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity
during the period from her alleged onset date of April 1,
2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014.
3. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
following severe impairments: bladder issues, vaginal wall
prolapse, obesity, depression, and anxiety.
4. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . .
except with simple, repetitive tasks; with occasional
interaction with the general public and coworkers; no fast
paced production rate work; and few workplace changes.
6. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to
perform any past relevant work.
10. Through the date last insured, considering
[Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and
residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in
significant No. in the national economy that [Plaintiff]
could have performed.
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the
. . . Act, at any time from April 1, 2010, the alleged onset
date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured.
(Tr. 12-21 (internal parenthetical citations omitted).)
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). 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, “a reviewing court must uphold the
factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of
benefits] 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).
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, 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 Cir. 2001) (internal brackets 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 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 Social Security 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
[Social Security 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
[(‘SSA')] has . . . promulgated . . . 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. (internal citations omitted).
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 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. 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 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.
Assignments of Error
asserts that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding
of no disability on these grounds:
1) “[t]he ALJ's conclusion that [Plaintiff] has a
limited education and is able to communicate in English is
not supported by substantial evidence [ and ] the ALJ's
failure to account for . . . [Plaintiff's] illiteracy and
limited ability to communicate in English in the hypothetical
posed to the VE is harmful error” (Docket Entry 16 at 5
(bold font and single-spacing omitted));
2) “the ALJ's failure to properly account for
[Plaintiff's] moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, and pace [(‘CPP')] in the RFC is
harmful error” (id. at 11 (bold font and
3) “[t]he ALJ's failure to properly account for the
total limiting effects of [Plaintiff's] impairments and
failure to provide a logical bridge between the evidence in
the record, [the ALJ's] conclusions and her RFC findings
is error” (id. at 16 (bold font and
single-spacing omitted)); and
4) “[r]emand is required because at the time [the
ALJ's] decision was issued, [her] appointment did not
comply with the Appointments Clause” (id. at