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Harris v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 17, 2014

JULIA M. HARRIS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Defendant.


THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Julia M. Harris brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)) ("the Act"), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for disability insurance benefits. The parties have both filed motions for judgment on the pleadings (Docs. 10, 14), and the administrative record has been certified to the court for review. For the reasons set forth below, Harris's motion will be granted, the Commissioner's denied, and the case remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


Harris applied for social security disability insurance benefits on March 31, 2010, alleging a disability beginning on April 1, 2005. (Tr. at 11.) The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id.) Harris then sought and received a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Harris appeared at a hearing, represented by counsel, on March 1, 2010, before ALJ James G. Myles. (Id.) An impartial, vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

On May 8, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Harris's claim for benefits. (Id. at 8-19.) The ALJ's decision made specific findings for the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. (Id.) However, since the ALJ concluded, at step four, that Harris was "capable of performing past relevant work as a poultry grader and a sock folder, " he determined that she was not disabled. (Id. at 18-19) Having ended his analysis there, the ALJ did not make any findings as to step five, whether there were other jobs that Harris was capable of performing. (Id.)

After this unfavorable decision, Harris sought review with the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-4.) Harris then filed a complaint against the Commissioner with this court, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1.) Each party has filed motions for a judgment on the pleadings (Docs. 10, 14), and this case is now ripe for review.


A. Standard of Review

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 an administrative] 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." Hancock v. Astrue , 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted) (internal brackets omitted) (setting out the standards for judicial review). "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)). "[I]t 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) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze , 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). "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 (quoting Laws , 368 F.2d at 642) (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, as adopted by the Social Security Commissioner]." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal brackets omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Social Security Commissioner or the ALJ]." Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). The issue before this 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 , 76 F.3d at 589.

In undertaking this limited review, the court notes that in administrative proceedings, "[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 expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'" Id . (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[1]

"The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)).

Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.

Id. The claimant bears the burden as to the first four steps, but the Commissioner bears the burden as to ...

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