United States District Court, Middle District of North Carolina
GRIER E. GUSTAFSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.
Plaintiff Grier E. Gustafson brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3)of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)) (the “Act”), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the court for review. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner’s motion will be granted, Gustafson’s motion will be denied, and this case will be dismissed.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Gustafson applied for DIB and SSI on July 21, 2005,  alleging a disability onset date of June 30, 2001. (Tr. at 47-51.) The applications were denied initially (Tr. at 33, 41-45) and on reconsideration (Tr. at 31, 36-38), and Gustafson requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. at 34). Present at the hearing, held on January 21, 2009, were Gustafson, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. at 669-91.) On May 5, 2009, the ALJ determined that Gustafson was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 12-24.) On September 21, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Gustafson’s request for review, thereby making the ALJ’s determination the Commissioner’s final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 7-10.)
In making this disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Gustafson] meets the insured status requirements of the . . . Act through December 31, 2002.
2. [Gustafson] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2001, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. [Gustafson] has the following severe impairments: Bipolar Disorder; Anxiety; Depression; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; History of Polysubstance Abuse in Remission; Disorder of the Lumbar Spine, Status Post Surgery; and History of Seizures (due to drug abuse) (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. [Gustafson] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, at all times relevant to this decision, . . . [Gustafson] ha[d] the residual functional capacity to perform a nearly full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). [She] can stand and walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour day; she can sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour day; she can lift and carry, and push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she has the following occasional postural limitations: stooping, bending, kneeling, couching and crawling; and she must avoid all exposure to hazards in the workplace (dangerous machinery, working at unprotected heights). Furthermore, after December 31, 2002, [Gustafson] ha[d] the mental residual functional capacity for unskilled, non-complex, routine, repetitive mental tasks, in a low-stress, non-production environment. Prior to December 31, 2002, [Gustafson]’s mental impairments were non-severe.
(Tr. at 17-19.)
In light of the findings regarding residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Gustafson would be able to perform her past relevant work (“PRW”) as a dispatcher and as a switchboard operator. (Tr. at 23.) Alternatively, the ALJ found that even if Gustafson were not able to perform any of her PRW, other jobs available in significant numbers existed in the national economy that she could perform. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Gustafson had not been “disabled, ” as defined in the Act, at any time from June 30, 2001, through the date of her decision, May 5, 2009. (Id.)
Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner’s denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of . . . review of [such an administrative] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. ...