United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
C. HOPPE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Andrew W. asks the Court to review the Commissioner
of Social Security's final decision denying his claim for
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42
U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The case is before me by the
parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). ECF Nos.
8, 9. Having considered the administrative record, the
parties' briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable
law, I cannot find that substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's final decision. Accordingly, the decision
will be reversed and the case remanded under the fourth
sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Standard of Review
Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the
Commissioner's final decision that a person is not
entitled to disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
see also Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th
Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it may
not “reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that
of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d
470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, a court reviewing the
merits of the Commissioner's final decision asks only
whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings. Meyer
v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011); see
Riley v. Apfel, 88 F.Supp.2d 572, 576 (W.D. Va. 2000)
(citing Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991)).
evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971). It is “more than a mere
scintilla” of evidence, id., but not
necessarily “a large or considerable amount of
evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552,
565 (1988). Substantial evidence review considers the entire
record, and not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See
Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487-89
(1951); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th
Cir. 1984). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ's
factual findings if “conflicting evidence allows
reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). However, “[a] factual
finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means
of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.”
Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
person is “disabled” within the meaning of the
Act if he or she 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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Social Security
ALJs follow a five-step process to determine whether a
claimant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the
claimant (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment that
satisfies the Act's duration requirement; (3) has an
impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the
Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past
relevant work based on his or her residual functional
capacity; and, if not (5) whether he or she can perform other
work. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62
(1983); Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th
Cir. 2017); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant
bears the burden of proof through step four. Lewis,
858 F.3d at 861. At step five, the burden shifts to the
agency to prove that the claimant is not disabled. See
August 2014, Andrew filed for DIB alleging that he had been
disabled since February 15, 2013, because of
“unpredictable” physical pain and psychiatric
disorders including anxiety, depression, attention deficit
disorder, osmophobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
See Administrative Record (“R.”) 18, 88,
177-80, ECF No. 12. He later amended his alleged onset date
(“AOD”) to March 1, 2011, the same date he was in
a serious car accident. R. 47. Andrew was thirty years old,
or a “younger person” under the regulations, on
that date. R. 20, 34; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c).
Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the
state agency, denied his claim initially in January 2015, R.
88-101, and upon reconsideration that July, R. 102-16. In
September 2016, Andrew appeared with counsel and testified at
an administrative hearing before ALJ Mark O'Hara. R.
41-87. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified
at this hearing. R. 74-85.
O'Hara issued an unfavorable decision on January 9, 2017.
R. 18-36. He found that Andrew had performed work activity
since March 2011, but not “at the substantial gainful
activity” level. R. 20. Andrew met the Act's
insured-status requirements through March 31,
2014. Id. At step two, ALJ O'Hara
found that Andrew “had the following questionably
severe impairments” during the relevant time:
“anxiety and affective disorders, multiple fractures
status-post [the] March 1, 2011 motor vehicle accident with
right ankle pain, and myofascial neck and back pain.”
Id. All other “medical conditions found in the
record, alone or in combination, ” were either
non-severe or not medically determinable. R. 21. Andrew's
severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the
relevant listings. R. 21-23 (citing 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt.
P, app. 1 §§ 1.02, 1.06, 12.04, 12.06 (2016)).
O'Hara then evaluated Andrew's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) as it existed before March 31,
2014. R. 23-34. Physically, Andrew could have performed
medium work that involved “occasional[ly]
climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds, balancing without
limitation, ” and doing other postural activities
“no more than frequently.” R. 24. Mentally,
Andrew “retained the concentration, persistence, and
pace to perform simple repetitive tasks that [did] not
require working with the public” and involved
“working with things” more than people.
Id. The limitation to simple work ruled out
Andrew's return to his past relevant work as an engineer.
R. 34; see R. 35-36, 80-82. Finally, based on this
RFC finding and the VE's testimony, ALJ O'Hara
concluded at step five that Andrew was not disabled between
March 1, 2011, and March 31, 2014, because he could have
performed several unskilled occupations (e.g.,
janitor/cleaner, order picker, office helper, laundry aide)
that offered a significant number of jobs in Virginia and
nationwide. R. 35-36; see R. 82-85. The Appeals
Council denied Andrew's request for review, R. 1-3, and
this appeal followed.
sole argument on appeal challenges ALJ O'Hara's
finding that Andrew's severe anxiety and affective
disorders did not meet Listing 12.06. See Pl.'s
Br. 2, 5-11, ECF No. 14. The Listings are examples of medical
conditions that “ordinarily prevent a person from
working” in any capacity. Sullivan v. Zebley,
493 U.S. 521, 533 (1990) (quotation marks omitted). If a
claimant's severe impairment(s) “satisfies
all of the criteria of [the corresponding] listing,
including any relevant criteria in the introduction, ”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(3) (emphasis added), then the
claimant is “entitled to a conclusive
presumption” that he or she is disabled, Radford v.
Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing
Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 471
(1986)). See Zebley, 493 U.S. at 530 (“An
impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no
matter how severely, does not qualify.”). To make this
determination, the ALJ must identify the relevant listed
impairment(s) and “compare each of the listed
criteria” to the evidence in the claimant's record.
Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir.
O'Hara considered whether Andrew's mental impairments
met Listing 12.06, “Anxiety-related
disorders.” R. 20-23, 27-34. That listing is broken
into three “paragraphs, ” or parts, 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, subpt. P, app. 1 § 12.06(A)-(C) (2016), and in this
case Andrew had to “present evidence of both parts A
and B” to prevail, McCartney v. Apfel, 28
Fed.Appx. 277, 279 (4th Cir. 2002). See Def.'s
Br. 10 n.7, ECF No. 16. Part A required “medically
documented findings” that Andrew exhibited at least one
of five listed “persistent” or
“recurrent” psychiatric disorders and
accompanying symptoms. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §
12.06(A)(1)-(5). Part B required evidence that the impairment
caused “marked” limitations in at least two of
three broad functional areas: activities of daily living;
social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace.
Id. § 12.06(B)(1)-(3). A “marked”
limitation means “more than moderate but less than
extreme” difficulty in a functional area. Id.
§ 12.00(C). Andrew could have had a “marked
limitation . . . when several activities or functions [were]
impaired, or even when one [was] impaired, so long as the
degree of limitation . . . interfere[d] seriously with [his]
ability to function independently, appropriately,
effectively, and on a sustained basis.” Id. In
making this determination, ALJ O'Hara was required to
“consider all relevant evidence in [the] case record,
” id. § 12.00(D), including medical
opinions, findings on mental-status exams, Andrew's
subjective statements, information about unsuccessful work
attempts, id. § 12.00(D)(1)-(5), and,
importantly, any descriptions of Andrew's “typical
reaction” to stress, id. § 12.00(D)(11).
argues that the medical evidence of record shows he had
“at least marked limitation” in social
functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace. See Pl.'s Br. 6. That question-whether
Andrew was disabled during the relevant time-is for the
Commissioner to decide. The fundamental question before the
Court is whether the ALJ's conclusion that Andrew was
“not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and
was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant
law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996). On that issue, Andrew points to specific medical
records dated between February 2013 and July 2016 that he
believes the ALJ misinterpreted. See Pl.'s Br.