Gooch v. Colvin
ORDER GRANTING 17 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and DENYING 20 Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed and this matter is remanded for an award of benefits. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 11/24/2014. (Fisher, M.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
LARRY GENE GOOCH, SR.,
CAROLYN COL YIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the
pleadings. [DE 17, 20]. A hearing on this matter was held in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on
November 13,2014 at 10:00 a.m. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion is
GRANTED, defendant's motion is DENIED, and, accordingly, the judgment ofthe
commissioner is REVERSED.
Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on
February 14, 2011, alleging disability beginning October 31, 2004. [Tr. 148-49]. Defendant's
date last insured was December 31, 2009. These applications were denied initially and upon
reconsideration. On July 19, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and
rendered an unfavorable decision on July 27,2012. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Gooch's
request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr.
Gooch now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). On his alleged onset of disability date, plaintiff was 60 years old. [Tr. 26]. Plaintiff
completed the eleventh grade and later received a OED. [Tr. 27, 194]. His past work was with
the same employer, IBM, from 1979 until2004 [Tr. 194, 237-39].
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision ofthe Commissioner, the Court's
review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there
is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "evidence which a
reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Shively v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 987,989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640,642 (4th Cir.
1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith
v. Chafer, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).
In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ uses a multi-step process. First, a
claimant must not be able to work in a substantial gainful activity. 20 C.P.R. § 404.1520.
Second, a claimant must have a severe impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities. !d. Third, to be found disabled, without considering a
claimant's age, education, and work experience, a claimant's impairment must be of sufficient
duration and must either meet or equal an impairment listed by the regulations. !d. Fourth, in the
alternative, a claimant may be disabled if his or her impairment prevents the claimant from doing
past relevant work and, fifth, if the impairment prevents the claimant from doing other work. !d.
The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status requirements and
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date to
the date last insured. [Tr. 14]. Mr. Gooch's "status post gunshot wound to his thigh and knee"
qualified as a severe impairment at step two but was not found to meet or equal a Listing at step
three. [Tr. 14-15]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")
to perform a limited range of sedentary work with limitations as to, inter alia, sitting, standing,
lifting, and stooping. [Tr. 15]. The ALJ then found that Mr. Gooch could do his past relevant
work as a software engineer, and therefore determined that plaintiff was not disabled as of the
date ofthe opinion. [Tr. 18].
Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in finding at step four that plaintiff could return to his
past relevant work as a software engineer because plaintiff has not worked as a software engineer
in the past fifteen years. Work experience is relevant only if it was done within the last fifteen
years, lasted long enough for the person to learn to do it, and constituted substantial gainful
activity. SSR 82-62. The relevant period for Title II cases is the work performed for the fifteen
year period preceding the date the Title II disability insured status requirement was last met. 20
CFR § 416.965. Accordingly, the relevant time period in this case is from 1994 to 2009, as
plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2009.
At the hearing, Mr. Gooch testified multiple times that he did not work as a software
engineer, but moved machines, set up labs and wiring, and tested machines. [Tr. 28, 194-95].
Mr. Gooch testified that the only code writing he performed was in the early 1980s. [Tr. 42-43].
Plaintiff further testified that since 2000, his job was as an educator and leader in a laboratory
setting. [Tr. 28-29, 42-23, 194-95]. He explained that the work required him to be on his feet all
day and to lift and carry up to 50 pounds of equipment. [Tr. 28-29]. Plaintiff ultimately left his
job at IBM in 2004 because he was unable to perform the physical aspects of the job due to his
impairments, which resulted from being "shot in the left knee in Vietnam." [Tr. 31-32]. The
evidence supporting the ALJ's finding that plaintiff's actual past relevant work was as a software
engineer was his job title. [Tr. 194]. Plaintiff's job title alone cannot determine the substance of
his work, however. See SSR 82-62 (explaining that "past work experience must be considered
carefully to assure that the available facts support a conclusion regarding the claimant's ability or
inability to perform the functional activities required in this work."). The Court finds that the
evidence of record supports a finding that the software engineer position was not performed in
the fifteen years prior to adjudication, and therefore is not past relevant work.
An employment document from IBM demonstrates that claimant was employed as a
Senior Lab Specialist in 1994, which is consistent with his testimony. [Tr. 246-4 7]. The
vocational expert testified that this was a "more labor intensive job" and was classified as a
microcomputer support specialist with a strength level medium. [Tr. 40--41]. The Court finds that
this job more accurately describes plaintiff's past relevant work, given plaintiff's testimony and
the available evidence. Plaintiff's RFC does not allow him to perform this past relevant work,
however, as plaintiff is limited to less-than-sedentary work, and the microcomputer support
specialist has a strength level of medium. [Tr. 40--41].
Finding that plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work necessitates a finding of
disability under the Medical Vocational Guidelines ("grids"). Plaintiff was 60 years old at the
time of his application for benefits, and his education is limited to aGED. [Tr. 26-27]. His
previous work experience is skilled or semi-skilled, but due to his advanced age and limitation to
skilled sedentary work, his skills are not transferrable. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x. II
§ 20l.OO(f). As such, plaintiff should have been found disabled pursuant to grid rule 201.06. 20
C.P.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x. II§ 201.06.
The decision of whether to reverse and remand for benefits or reverse and remand for a
new hearing is one which "lies within the sound discretion of the district court." Edwards v.
Bowen, 672 F.Supp. 230,236 (E.D.N.C. 1987). The Fourth Circuit has held that it is appropriate
for a federal court to "reverse without remanding where the record does not contain substantial
evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when
reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493
F .2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974 ). Remand, rather than reversal, is required when the ALJ fails to
explain his reasoning and there is ambivalence in the medical record, precluding a court from
"meaningful review." Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Kastner v.
Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 648 (7th Cir. 2012)). Here, the ALJ clearly explained his reasoning, it was
simply in error. It is clear that the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a
decision denying coverage. The Court therefore reverses the decision of the Commissioner and
remands to the agency for an award of benefits as of his alleged onset date of October 31, 2004.
For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 17] is
GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED. Accordingly, this case is
REMANDED for an award of benefits consistent with this Order.
SO ORDERED, this
11_ day ofNovember, 2014.
T RRENCE W. BOYLE
UNITED STATES DISTRIC JUDGE
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