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Jackson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

September 9, 2014

JENNIFER D. JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

MARTIN REIDINGER, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 10], and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 12].

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Plaintiff Jennifer D. Jackson filed an application for disability insurance benefits on September 17, 2008, [Transcript ("T.") 53, 55], alleging that she had become disabled as of September 12, 2008 [T. 29]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially [T. 53] and on reconsideration [T. 55]. The Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") which occurred on October 15, 2010. [T. 25-26]. On April 1, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. [T. 9-19]. On November 28, 2012, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 1-3]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986).

The Social Security Act provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Fourth Circuit has defined "substantial evidence" as "more than a scintilla and [doing] 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." Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401).

The Court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, so long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the final decision below. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If the claimant's case fails at any step, the ALJ does not go any further and benefits are denied. See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the applicant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Second, the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any impairment or combination thereof which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is shown and the claimant is not disabled. Id. Third, if the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments of Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation 4, the claimant is disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. Id. Fourth, if the impairment does not meet the criteria above but is still a severe impairment, then the ALJ reviews the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and the physical and mental demands of work done in the past. If the claimant can still perform that work, then a finding of not disabled is mandated. Id. Fifth, if the claimant has a severe impairment but cannot perform past relevant work, then the ALJ will consider whether the applicant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience enable the performance of other work. If so, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.

V. THE ALJ'S DECISION

On April 1, 2011, ALJ Sims issued a decision denying the Plaintiff's claim. [T. 9-19]. Proceeding to the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2012 and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 12, 2008. [T. 11]. The ALJ then found that the medical evidence established the following severe impairments: chronic back pain with radiculopathy status post five surgeries. [Id.]. The ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled a listing. [T. 12].

The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), finding that the Plaintiff had the ability to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except with a sit/stand option (sit for 30 minutes - stand as needed), occasional climbing, stooping, or crouching, and with occasional exposure to hazards. [T. 12]. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. [T. 17]. Because the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferable to ...


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