United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
ROBERT S. BURGE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
MARTIN REIDINGER, District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. 8] and the Defendant's Motion for Affirmance of the Commissioner's Decision [Doc. 12].
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The Plaintiff Robert S. Burge applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on June 22, 2006, alleging disability commencing on May 1, 2001. [Transcript ("Tr.") 203-05]. After the Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing. [Tr. 127]. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on April 20, 2009. [Tr. 63-91]. On May 4, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [Tr. 99-107]. The Plaintiff appealed the decision, and the Appeals Council remanded his case to the ALJ on March 9, 2010, for the consideration of new and material evidence. [Tr. 112-14].
A second hearing was held before the ALJ on February 2, 2011, at which the Plaintiff, a medical expert, Theron Blickenstaff, M.D., and a vocational expert, Mark Leaptrot, testified. [Tr. 23-48]. On February 28, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work and therefore denied him benefits. [Tr. 6-22]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 1-3]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, see Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker , 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986).
The Social Security Act provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of any Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Fourth Circuit has defined "substantial evidence" as "more than a scintilla and [doing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Smith v. Heckler , 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales , 402 U.S. at 401, 91 S.Ct. at 1427).
The Court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, so long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the final decision below. Hays , 907 F.2d at 1456; Lester v. Schweiker , 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).
III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If the claimant's case fails at any step, the ALJ does not go any further and benefits are denied. Pass v. Chater , 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the applicant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Second, the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any impairment or combination thereof which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is shown and the claimant is not disabled. Id . Third, if the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments of Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation 4, the claimant is disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id . Fourth, if the impairment does not meet the criteria above but is still a severe impairment, then the ALJ reviews the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and the physical and mental demands of work done in the past. If the claimant can still perform that work, then a finding of not disabled is mandated. Id . Fifth, if the claimant has a severe impairment but cannot perform past relevant work, then the ALJ will consider whether the applicant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience enable the performance of other work. If so, then the claimant is not disabled. Id . In this case, the ALJ's determination was made at the fourth step.
IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION
On February 28, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying the Plaintiff's claim. [Tr. 6-22]. Proceeding to the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2006, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of May 1, 2001 through his date last insured. [Tr. 11]. The ALJ then found that the medical evidence established that the Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: disorders of the knee and left lower leg and chronic prostatitis. [Tr. 11-13]. The ALJ determined, however, that none of Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, met or equaled a listing. [Tr. 13]. The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) [T. 13-17], finding that the Plaintiff had the ability to perform light work with the following limitations: lifting no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and walking no more than two hours in an eight-hour day; alternating sitting or standing as needed; climbing stairs/ramps occasionally; no kneeling, crawling, or climbing ladders. [T. 13]. He then determined that the Plaintiff was capable of performing his past ...