United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
B. JONES, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE-22, -24] pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Rickie Leroy Court
("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial
review of the denial of his applications for a period of
disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"),
and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments.
The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the
pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully
reviewed the administrative record and the motions and
memoranda submitted by the parties, Claimant's Motion for
Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, Defendant's Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings is allowed, and the final
decision of the Commissioner is upheld.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
protectively filed an application for a period of disability
and DIB on July 9, 2015, and he protectively filed an
application for SSI on September 9, 2015, alleging disability
in both applications beginning December 6, 2011. (R. 17,
250-67). Both claims were denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (R. 17, 99-148). A hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on
February 20, 2018, at which Claimant, represented by a
non-attorney representative, and a vocational expert
("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 17, 43-98). On
August 14, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying
Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 14-42). Claimant
then requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the
Appeals Council (R. 248-49), and he submitted additional
evidence as part of his request (R. 2). The Appeals Council
did not exhibit the additional evidence because it was not
new; it was a copy of evidence already in the record.
Id. The Appeals Council denied Claimant's
request for review on October 30, 2018. (R. 1-5). Claimant
then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the
now-final administrative decision.
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, 76 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. §§
404.1520 and 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a
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. Chafer, 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. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and
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
impairment(s): understanding, remembering, or applying
information; interacting with others; concentrating,
persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing
oneself. Id. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3),
416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his
written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on
the "special technique." Id. §§
case, Claimant alleges the following errors: (1) the ALJ
improperly weighed the opinions of Claimant's treating
providers and (2) the ALJ erred in determining that
Claimant's statements were not entirely consistent with
the medical and other evidence. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-23] 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 engaged in
substantial gainful activity from January 2017 to December
2017, but there were continuous twelve-month periods during
which Claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity
from January 2012 to December 2016 and from January 2018 to
the present. (R. 20-21). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant
had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease, dysfunction of major joints related to the feet and
ankles, essential hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity,
sleep apnea, and peripheral vascular disease. (R. 21). The
ALJ also found Claimant had nonsevere impairments of chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") and
depressive, bipolar, and related disorders. Id.
However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these 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.
23-24). Applying the technique prescribed ...