United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
ROBERT H. ROYBAL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. PATRICK AULD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Robert H. Roybal, brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act") 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 Titles II and XVI of the Act, respectively. (Docket Entry 2.) The Court has before it the certified administrative record (cited herein as "Tr. __"), as well as the parties' cross-motions for judgment (Docket Entries 10, 12). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI and alleged a disability onset date of June 15, 2003. (Tr. 186-93.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 63-64, 86-93) and on reconsideration (Tr. 65-66, 96-104), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 105-06). Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") attended the hearing. (Tr. 15-62.) The ALJ then ruled Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 67-81.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 1-7.)
In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the... Act through June 30, 2006.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 15, 2003, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: chronic cholecy[s]titis and degenerative disc disease (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 perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that: [Plaintiff] need[s] a sit/stand option. [Plaintiff] can frequently reach in all directions and can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. [Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds.
In light of the findings regarding residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a restaurant cook, forklift driver, ceramic tile installer, restaurant manager, tool and equipment rental clerk, equipment cleaner and vehicle unloader. (Tr. 78-79.) However, based on the VE's testimony, as well as consideration of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that "jobs  exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform." (Tr. 79-80 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff to suffer from no "disability, " as defined in the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of decision. (Tr. 81.)
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... 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 brackets 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 disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
In confronting that issue, the Court must note that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, " Hall v. Harris , 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context, "disability" means 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. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). "To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has... promulgated... detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition ...