United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
DEBORAH M. BROWN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
FRANK D. WHITNEY, District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Deborah M. Brown's ("Plaintiff's") Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 13). 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 GRANTED, Defendant's Motion for Summary judgment is DENIED, and the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision is VACATED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Order.
On August 17, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 177-83). Plaintiff additionally filed an application under Title IV of the Social Security Act for supplemental security income on August 17, 2010. (Tr. 184-87). Both applications alleged that Plaintiff's disability began on September 9, 2009. The Commissioner initially denied the applications on November 30, 2010, (Tr. 117-21), and again on April 27, 2011 after reconsideration. (Tr. 123-31). On May 31, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for an administrative hearing. (Tr. 132-33).
Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing before the Administrative Law Judge Thaddeus J. Hess on April 12, 2012. (Tr. 31-54). The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim on June 29, 2012. (Tr. 11-30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review on May 5, 2013. As such, the ALJ's decision of June 29, 2012 became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed a request on August 13, 2012, for a review of the ALJ's decision, (Tr. 8-10), which was subsequently denied by the Appeals Council on May 5, 2013. Plaintiff timely filed this action on July 1, 2013, and the Parties' Motions are now ripe pursuant to 42. U.S.C. § 405(g).
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, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), 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.
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 at 345. 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 of the Commissioner. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. The ALJ, and not the court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was "disabled, " as defined for Social Security purposes, on September 9, 2010. On June 29, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not "disabled" at any time between September 9, 2010 and the date of his decision. (Tr. 11-30). The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential ...