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Sparks v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

April 8, 2014

BARBARA
v.
SPARKS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

GRAHAM C. MULLEN, District Judge.

THIS MATTER comes now before the Court upon Plaintiff Barbara V. Sparks ("Plaintiff's") Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, (Doc. No. 10) filed on May 18, 2013, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 13), filed on August 7, 2013. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits.

Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision is AFFIRMED.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on August 11, 2006 alleging a disability onset date of March 15, 2006. (Tr. 213 & 218) The claim was initially denied on December 11, 2006, and denied again upon reconsideration. Subsequently, on November 9, 2007, Plaintiff timely filed a written request for an administrative hearing and Administrative Law Judge Peter C. Edison presided over the hearing on April 15, 2009.

On June 29, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's Request for Review on February 12, 2010, and remanded the case for a new disability hearing. (Tr. 104) A hearing was held before the Honorable Helen O. Evans on July 19, 2011, and Judge Evans issued an unfavorable hearing decision on August 8, 2011. (Tr. 7) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review by Action dated November 5, 2012. (Tr. 1) The August 8, 2011 ALJ decision thus became the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 1-6)

Plaintiff timely filed this action on May 18, 2013, and the parties' motions are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, this Court "must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.'" Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)). This Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

As the Social Security Act provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, quoting Richardson v. Perales, the Fourth Circuit defined "substantial evidence" thus:

Substantial evidence has been defined as being more than a scintilla and do[ing] 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.

782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986); 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); See also Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) ("We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence").

The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that it is not for a reviewing court to weigh the evidence again, nor to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome-so long as there is "substantial evidence" in the record to support the Commissioner's final decision. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). In reviewing for substantial evidence, a court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its own judgment for that ...


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