United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
LINDA H. MAYES, Plaintiff,
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. 5] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8].
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The Plaintiff Linda H. Mayes filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 7, 2005, alleging that she had become disabled as of March 1, 2003. [Transcript ("T.") 129-133, 150, 182]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially [T. 102-107] and on reconsideration [T. 110-116]. The Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") which occurred on June 30, 2009. [T. 30-62]. On July 24, 2009, ALJ Avots issued an unfavorable decision. [T. 13-29]. On July 30, 2010, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 7-11]. The Plaintiff then brought this action in this Court.
The Commissioner moved for remand of the Plaintiff's case according to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [T. 617-19]. This Court remanded the case to the Appeals Council [T. 620-22], instructing that upon remand, the Commissioner was to:
evaluate the severity of the Plaintiff's cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, and reassess Plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity in light of all of the medical evidence of record, obtaining input from the medical staff or a State Agency medical consultant, [and] if necessary, hold a new hearing at which Plaintiff will be able to testify and present evidence.
[T. 620-22]. The Appeals Council then remanded this matter to ALJ Riley for further hearing. [T. 558-89]. The Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to June 20, 2007 at her hearing with ALJ Riley via video conference on July 23, 2012. [T. 562]. On August 14, 2012, ALJ Riley issued an unfavorable decision. On January 29, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 516-18]. 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 ...