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Gunter v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 30, 2014

STEWART T. GUNTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

L. PATRICK AULD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Stewart T. Gunter, brought this action to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). (Docket Entry 1.) The Court has before it the administrative record (cited as "Tr. __"), as well as the parties' cross-motions for judgment (Docket Entries 11, 14). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of November 22, 2000. (Tr. 63-65, 422-25.) Upon denial both initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 37, 38, 426, 431), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 53). After a hearing at which Plaintiff, his representative, and a vocational expert appeared (Tr. 484-512), the ALJ ruled Plaintiff not disabled under the Act (Tr. 432-44). The Appeals Council remanded for further proceedings. (Tr. 451-52.) The ALJ held another hearing (Tr. 513-16) and again found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 14-26). The Appeals Council denied review (Tr. 8-10), such that the ALJ's finding of no disability became the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

In rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the [] Act through December 31, 2005.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 22, 2000, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq. , 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, depression and a personality disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
....
4. [Plaintiff] 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
....
5.... [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to engage in medium work activity with additional limitations, including performing only simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a non-production work environment with only occasional personal interaction.

(Tr. 19-21.)

The ALJ then found that Plaintiff no longer could do his past work (Tr. 24), but could "perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy" (Tr. 25). Accordingly, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff did not have a "disability" under the Act. (Tr. 26.) Plaintiff thereafter instituted this action. (Docket Entry 1.)

DISCUSSION

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 our review of [such a] 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." Hines , 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).

"Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan , 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter , 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

"In reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner]." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the ALJ)." Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). "The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not ...


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