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Lail v. Colvin

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

September 25, 2014

ROBERT B. LAIL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



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


The Plaintiff Robert B. Lail filed an application for supplemental security income on October 26, 2007. [Transcript ("T.") 132]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially [T. 151-54] and on reconsideration [T. 161-68]. The Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") which occurred on October 2, 2009. [T. 95-131]. On October 30, 2009, ALJ Case issued an unfavorable decision. [T. 134-46]. On April 23, 2010, the Appeals Council remanded the Plaintiff's case to an ALJ for the resolution of various issues. [T. 148-50]. On September 7, 2011, the Plaintiff had a second hearing, this time before ALJ Edwards. [T. 58-94]. On October 21, 2011, ALJ Edwards issued an unfavorable decision. [T. 11-22]. The Plaintiff appealed this unfavorable decision to the Appeals Council, but his request was denied on April 18, 2013. [T. 3-5]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, see Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, see 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).


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.


On October 21, 2011, ALJ Edwards issued a decision denying the Plaintiff's claim. [T. 11-22]. Proceeding to the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 26, 2007. [T. 17]. The ALJ then found that the medical evidence established the following severe impairments: anxiety/alcohol dependence/depression/borderline intellectual functioning, and essential tremors. [T. 17]. The ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled a listing. [Id.].

The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), finding that the Plaintiff had the ability to perform "a wide range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant would be limited to routine/simple work activity, no intense ongoing interpersonal interaction with others, no exposure to hazardous conditions, and because of bilateral tremors (no fine dexterous work activity)." [T. 18]. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. [T. 20]. The ALJ further found that the transferability of job skills was not material to the determination of disability according to the Medical-Vocational Rules framework because the Plaintiff's past relevant work was unskilled. [T. 21]. Finally, when considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and ...

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