United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
SHEILA T. MULLIS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOE L. WEBSTER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Sheila T. Mullis, brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)), to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security affirming the cessation of her Period of Disability ("POD") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act. The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for a POD and DIB on May 21, 2002 alleging a disability onset date of November 10, 2001. (Tr. 90-92.) On June 18, 2002, Plaintiff was found to be disabled under the Act as of November 10, 2001 ( Id. at 21, 34.) On October 2, 2007, Defendant concluded that Plaintiff's disability ceased as of December 2006. ( Id. at 61-72.) On November 14, 2007, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 76.) At the July 8, 2008 hearing were Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE"). ( Id. at 420, 422.) In his November 25, 2008 decision, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled under the Act as of December 1, 2006. ( Id. at 21-33.) On November 17, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. ( Id. at 5-8.)
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff was forty-nine years old as of December 1, 2006, had at least a high school education, and is able to communicate in English. ( Id. at 31.)
III. STANDARD FOR REVIEW
The Act provides that, for "eligible" individuals, benefits shall be available to those who are "under a disability, " defined in the Act as the inability:
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).
Once the decision has been made to grant a claimant benefits, there is no presumption of continuing disability, see id. § 423(f)(4); rather, that decision is subject to periodic review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1589. The prior determination-the "comparison point decision"-is used as a reference to evaluate whether any medical improvement has been realized relating to the individual's ability to work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(f); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594.
The Commissioner defines "medical improvement" as:
any decrease in the medical severity of your impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or continued to be disabled. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with your impairment(s) [.]
20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1).
In turn, the medical improvements that are relevant to a disability determination must be those that increase an individual's functional capacity to engage in gainful activity, i.e., the ability to do basic work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(3), (4). To make this determination, the Commissioner employs an eight-step sequential analysis:
(1) Is the beneficiary working?
(2) If not, does the impairment meet or equal a listing?
(3) If not, has there been "any" medical improvement?
(4) If medical improvement, does such improvement relate to the ability to work?
(5) If no improvement, does an exception apply?
(6) If there is an improvement related to work ability, are the current impairments, alone or in combination, "severe"?
(7) If there is a severe impairment, does the beneficiary's residual functional capacity ("RFC") permit performance of past work?
(8) If not, does the beneficiary have the RFC to perform other work? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(0(1)-(8). If the Commissioner finds conclusively that a claimant is disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. See id.
The scope of judicial review by the federal courts in disability cases is narrowly tailored to determine whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005). Consequently, the Act precludes a de novo review of the evidence and requires the Court to uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). Substantial evidence is:
evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence."
Shively v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.1966)). Thus, it is the duty of this Court to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the Commissioner's findings, and that this conclusion is rational. Thomas v. Celebreze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). If there is substantial evidence to support the decision of ...