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McLawhorn v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division

May 29, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


FRANK D. WHITNEY, Chief District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Patricia Stricland McLawhorn's ("Plaintiff's") Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 9), filed on November 22, 2013, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's ("Defendant's") Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), filed on January 21, 2014. 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.


Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and for supplemental security income ("SSI") on March 24, 2010 alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2003. (Doc. No. 8-3). After Plaintiff's claims were denied and denied again upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Doc. No. 8-3). During the hearing on January 19, 2012, Plaintiff amended her alleged disability onset date to October 7, 2008. (Tr. 60). On March 8, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Doc. No. 8-3). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (Tr. 1). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 29, 2013. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff filed this action on June 4, 2013, and the parties' motions are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


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 to 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), the Fourth Circuit defined substantial evidence "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 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 of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). 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, between October 7, 2008 and the date of the decision.[2] The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;

(2) Whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment, or a combination of impairments that is severe;

(3) Whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals one of The Listings in 20 C.F.R. ...

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