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Bartz v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

April 4, 2014

TAIFA BARTZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

WILLIAM A. WEBB, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon the parties' Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. DE's-15 & 18. The time for filing any responses or replies has expired, and, therefore, the motions are now ripe for adjudication. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), they have been referred to the undersigned for the entry of a Memorandum and Recommendation.

For the following reasons, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (DE-15) be GRANTED, and that Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (DE-18) be DENIED. Specifically, it is RECOMMENDED that Defendant's final decision be vacated and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.

Statement of the Case

Plaintiff protectively filed concurrent applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on April 27, 2005, alleging disability beginning January 28, 2005. Tr. 20. Her claim has a rather tortured procedural history: it was denied initially and upon reconsideration, denied by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") following a hearing in 2008, remanded by the Appeals Council for further consideration, denied by a different ALJ following a hearing in 2009, and then again remanded by the Appeals Council with instructions to obtain and consider a consultative mental status examination. See, e.g., Tr. 20, 80-81. A third hearing was therefore held before an ALJ for consideration of new mental health evidence, and the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated July 28, 2011. Id. at 20-28. The Social Security Administration's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 13, 2012, rendering the ALJ's determination as Defendant's final decision. Id. at 3. Plaintiff filed the instant action on February 19, 2013. DE-5.

Standard of Review

This Court is authorized to review Defendant's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides in pertinent part:

The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive....

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Under the Social Security Act, [the Court] must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence is... 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 consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). "In reviewing for substantial evidence, ... [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute... [its] judgment for that of the Secretary." Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. Thus, this Court's review is limited to determining whether Defendant's finding that Plaintiff was not disabled is "supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

But before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether Defendant has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-440 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983). While the ALJ is not required to discuss each and every piece of evidence in the record, Aytch v. Astrue, 686 F.Supp.2d 590, 602 (E.D. N.C. 2010), without a sufficient explanation of the weight given to obviously probative exhibits, it is not possible to determine if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Arnold v. Secretary of Health, Ed. and Welfare, 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977). Remand is therefore appropriate where an ALJ fails to discuss relevant evidence that weighs against his decision. Ivey v. Barnhart, 393 F.Supp.2d 387, 390 (E.D. N.C. 2005) (citing Murphy v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 433, 438 (4th Cir. 1987)).

ANALYSIS

Title II of the Social Security Act provides for the payment of insurance benefits to persons who have contributed to the program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability, as defined by the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D). Title XVI of the Act provides for the payment of disability benefits to indigent persons under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Id. § 1382(a). Both titles define "disability" 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...." Id. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A) (emphasis added). More specifically, an individual is considered disabled under the Act

only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or ...

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