United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
B. Jones, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-17, -20] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Carston Exum
("Claimant"), proceeding pro se, filed this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)
seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments.
Accordingly, the pending motions are ripe for adjudication.
Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the
motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is
recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on
the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the
Commissioner be upheld.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for SSI on February 18,
2016, alleging disability beginning the same date. (R. 31,
166-75). His claim was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (R. 31, 69-104). A hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on March
27, 2018, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a
vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified.
(R. 55-68). On June 11, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision
denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 28-49).
Claimant then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by
the Appeals Council (R. 163-64), and he submitted additional
evidence as part of his request (R. 50-54). The Appeals
Council found that the evidence did not show a reasonable
probability that it would change the outcome of the decision,
so it did not consider and exhibit the evidence. (R. 6). The
Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on
December 13, 2018. (R. 5-10). Claimant then filed a complaint
in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding
disability benefits under the Social Security Act
("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., 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). "The findings of the Commissioner
... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence,
shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind
would accept as sufficient to support a particular
conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640,
642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a
"large or considerable amount of evidence,"
Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is
"more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than
a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642.
"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 v.
Chater, 16 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded
by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial
evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to
whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and
sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in
crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v.
Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS
disability determination is based on a five-step sequential
evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920
under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:
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 [in severity] 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 ... past work or (5) any other work.
Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails
at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the
subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of
proof and production during the first four steps of the
inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth
step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work
exists in the national economy which the claimant can
assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do
so in accordance with the "special technique"
described in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)-(c). This
regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in
which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation
resulting from a claimant's mental impairments):
understanding, remembering, or applying information;
interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or
maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself.
Id. § 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to
incorporate into her written decision pertinent findings and
conclusions based on the "special technique."
Id. § 416.920a(e)(3).
case, Claimant alleges the ALJ improperly weighed the medical
evidence, the opinion evidence, the VE's testimony, and
the Claimant's testimony; the ALJ failed to consider the
reasons why Claimant stopped taking his antidepressant
medication; the ALJ failed to account for Claimant's
limitations in interacting with others, concentrating, and
maintaining pace; and the ALJ failed to use a medical expert
("ME") at the hearing. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-15] at
the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the
Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since February 18, 2016, the
application date. (R. 33). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant
had the severe impairments of hernia, osteoarthritis,
adjustment disorder with depressed mood, major depressive
disorder, and unspecified anxiety disorder and the non-severe
impairments of pre-diabetes, vision loss, history of buttock
abscess, hematuria, mild obesity, tachycardia, dental caries,
rhinitis, and a history of polysubstance abuse. (R. 33-34).
At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant'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, Appendix 1. (R.
34-3 5). Applying the technique prescribed by the
regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental
impairments have resulted in mild limitations in
understanding, remembering, or applying information and
adapting or managing oneself and in moderate limitations in
interacting with others and concentrating, persisting, or
maintaining pace. Id.
to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's
RFC, finding Claimant could perform medium work with the ability
to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions,
which is defined to mean activity that is consistent with a
reasoning level of 2 or 3 as defined in the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles; sustain attention and concentration
sufficient to carry out simple instructions over two-hour
periods of time in an eight-hour workday; interact
occasionally with the general public and coworkers; and work
in a low stress setting, which is specifically defined to
mean no fast paced production, only simple work related
decisions, and few or no changes in the work setting. (R.
35-43). In making this assessment, the ALJ found
Claimant's statements about the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of his symptoms not entirely consistent
with the medical and other evidence in the record. (R. 41).
At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant was unable to
perform any past relevant work. (R. 43). At step five, upon
considering Claimant's age, education, work experience,
and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting
to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist
in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 43-44).
The ALJ's RFC Determination
individual's RFC is the capacity he possesses despite the
limitations caused by physical or mental impairments. 20
C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); see also S.S.R. 96-8p,
1996 WL 374184, at *l (July 2, 1996). The RFC is based on all
relevant medical and other evidence in the record, which may
include a claimant's own description of limitations
arising from alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §
416.945(a)(3); see also S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *5. Where a claimant has numerous impairments,
including non-severe impairments, the ALJ must consider their
cumulative effect in making a disability determination. 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); see Hines v. Brown, 872
F.2d 56, 59 (4th Cir. 1989) ("[I]n determining whether
an individual's impairments are of sufficient severity to
prohibit basic work related activities, an ALJ must consider
the combined effect of a claimant's impairments.")
residual functional capacity 'assessment must first
identify the individual's functional limitations or
restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on
a function-by-function basis, including the functions'
listed in the regulations." Mascio v. Colvin,780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting S.S.R. 96-8p). The
ALJ must provide "a narrative discussion describing how
the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific
medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical
evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations)."
Id. (quoting S.S.R. 96-8p). "Only after such a
function-by-function analysis may an ALJ express RFC 'in
terms of the exertional levels of work.'" Monroe
v. Colvin,826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting
Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636); see also Clifford v.
Apfel,227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000) (observing that
the ALJ "must build an accurate and logical bridge from
the evidence to his conclusion"). The Fourth Circuit has
rejected "a per se rule requiring remand when the ALJ
does not perform an explicit function-by-function
analysis." Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636. Rather, the
court explained that "[r]emand may be appropriate .. .
where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to
perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in
the record, or where other inadequacies in the ...