Wood v. Astrue

Filing 36

ORDER GRANTING 24 Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and DENYING 30 Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The decision of the ALJ is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the foregoing. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 7/15/2014. (Fisher, M.)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA WESTERN DIVISION No. 5:13-CV-196-BO JENNIFER R. WOOD, Plaintiff, V. CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ORDER This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before the undersigned on July 2, 2014, at Raleigh, North Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. BACKGROUND Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed for DIB on September 16, 2010, alleging disability since June 1, 2008; plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to August 27, 2009. After initial denials, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who then issued an unfavorable ruling. The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review ofthe Commissioner's decision in this Court. DISCUSSION Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and citation omitted). An individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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 [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). Regulations issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20 C.P.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step ofthe process, however, the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.P.R.§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At st~p one, if the Social Security Administration determines that the claimant is currently eng~ged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks ! whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If the claimant I has a severe fmpairment, it is compared at step three to those in the Listing of Impairments I ("Listing") in! 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or ! medically eq~als a Listing, disability is conclusively presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's res~dual functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine if the claimant can ! perform his past relevant work. If so, the claim is denied. If the claimant cannot perform past I i relevant workj then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant, based on his ~ge, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful work. If the c~aimant cannot perform other work, then he is found to be disabled. See 20 C.F .R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status requirements and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. Plaintiffs obesity, headaches, hypertension, recurrent syncope, lumbar disc disease, right carpal tunnel syndrome, I gastroesophag~al reflux disease, and depression disorder were considered severe impairments at step two but were not found alone or in combination to meet or equal a listing at step three. I i After finding plaintiffs statements not entirely credible, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could perform light work with exertional and nonexertional limitations. The ALJ found that plaintiff could not retutn to her past relevant work but that, considering plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national 3 economy that plaintiff could perform. Thus, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of his decision. An ALJ makes an RFC assessment based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). When determining plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ discounted the evidence of plaintiffs severe headaches in the record because there was an absence of objective medical findings in support and plaintiff had failed to seek treatment for her headaches for six months. However, evidence of migraines and other headaches does not normally or necessarily appear on standard imaging tests, and thus there will often be no "objective" evidence of migraine headaches. See e.g. Duncan v. Astrue, No. 4:06-CV-230-FL, 2008 WL 111158 *7 (E.D.N.C. Jan. 8, 2008) (noting that headaches are a condition that cannot be diagnosed or confirmed through laboratory or diagnostic testing and listing cases holding same). Moreover, as noted by the ALJ, the medical record supported that plaintiffs migraines occurred approximately two to three times per month. Tr. 554; 645. When questioned about this number of absences, the vocational expert at the hearing testified that two or more absences per month would preclude work. Tr. 81. In his decision, the ALJ did not discuss this testimony or his basis for finding it not germane. Because the ALJ failed to conduct a thorough discussion of plaintiffs migraines or to address the testimony of the vocational expert regarding absences from work, review of the ALI's decision is not meaningful and remand is appropriate. Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295-296 (4th Cir. 2013). 4 CONCLUSION Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 24] is GRANTED and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 30] is DENIED. The decision of the ALJ is REMANDED to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the foregoing. SO ORDERED, this /f-day of July, 2014. T NCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT J 5

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