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Kennon v. Saul

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

September 6, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the parties having consented to proceed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Christy Kennon (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. On June 5, 2019, the court held oral argument in the matter and, on June 11, 2019, Plaintiff filed a notice waiving her previously asserted Appointments Clause argument under Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018).[2] The court has carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #36], denies Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #40], and remands the matter to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and DIB on August 24, 2015, with an alleged onset date of June 5, 2015. (R. 63, 80, 168-74.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 99-103, 106-21.) A hearing was held on December 4, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Joseph L. Brinkley, who issued an unfavorable ruling on January 11, 2018. (R. 13-28, 38-62.) On March 14, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-5.) At that time, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On May 14, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant civil action, seeking judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in original). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id. “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).

         III. ALJ's Findings

         As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) through December 31, 2020. (R. 15.) Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since June 5, 2015, the alleged onset date. (Id.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “narcolepsy, [3] cataplexy, [4] and autoimmune disease.” (R. 16.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's anterior cruciate ligament rupture in her left knee, irritable/inflamed bowel syndrome including constipation and occasional diarrhea, migraine headaches, eye conditions of hypertropia and exotropia, and depression to be non-severe impairments as they had either resolved, were medically managed with conservative treatment, or did not cause more than minimal limitations in Plaintiff's ability to engage in work-related activities. (R. 16-18.)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (R. 18.) The ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's autoimmune disease and symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, and joint pain under Listing 14.00 (immune system disorders). (R. 19.) Although there is no specific listing for narcolepsy and cataplexy, the ALJ compared these impairments with Listing 11.02 (epilepsy) and found the requirements were not met nor medically equaled.[5] (R. 18-19.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except she: can occasionally use the upper extremities to engage in bilateral reaching, pulling, pushing, and overhead lifting of no more than 5 pounds; can otherwise frequently reach, lift, pull and push in all other directions; can occasionally, as opposed to frequently, use the upper extremities to handle, finger, feel, and grasp bilaterally; can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, kneel and crouch; can occasionally use the dominate lower left extremity to operate foot and leg controls; cannot crawl and or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can have occasional exposure to temperature extremes; cannot work around dangerous, moving mechanical parts or unprotected heights; will need to work in a moderate work environment; is limited to low stressed occupations not requiring her to complete a fixed ...

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