United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff James Grose ("Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on November 27, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of April 17, 2007. (Tr. at 105-112.) His application was denied initially (Tr. at 56, 58-61) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 57, 65-72). Thereafter, he requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 73-74.) Plaintiff, along with his attorney, attended the subsequent hearing on February 16, 2010. (Tr. at 31.)
At the hearing, Plaintiff alleged two distinct periods of disability, the first from his alleged onset date until February 13, 2009, and the second from August 2009, through the date of the hearing. (Tr. at 31, 46-47.) From February 14, 2009 until August of that year, Plaintiff performed a temporary job as a forklift operator which qualified as substantial gainful activity and rendered him ineligible for DIB. (Tr. at 34, 47-49.)
The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff's back impairment met the requirements of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, § 1.04(C) ("Listing 1.04(C)") throughout his first alleged period of disability. (Tr. at 31, 36.) However, he determined that, "[o]n February 14, 2009, medical improvement occurred that is related to the ability to work, and [Plaintiff] has been able to perform substantial gainful activity from that date through the date of this decision." (Tr. at 31.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff's disability ended on February 14, 2009. (Tr. at 31, 40-41.)
As of February 14, 2009, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:
has had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except that he is limited to work requiring no more than occasional stooping, frequent, but not constant climbing, balancing, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, and which avoids concentrated exposure to heights and hazardous machinery.
(Tr. at 38.) The ALJ determined that the demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work exceeded the above residual functional capacity ("RFC"). However, the ALJ then considered Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the grids") contained in 20 C.F.R. Chapter III, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, and found that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, he concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability, " as defined in the Act, from his alleged onset date through the date last insured. (Tr. at 39-41.) On June 14, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-4.)
II. LEGAL STANDARD
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 if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue , 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation 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. 1993) (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 court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ]." 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 ALJ." Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing 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 undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris , 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). 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 ...