United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
KIMBERLY A. SWANK, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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). 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.
OF THE CASE
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).
Standard of Review
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).
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.
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,  cataplexy,  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.)
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. (R. 18-19.)
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 ...