United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
FRANK D. WHITNEY, Chief District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Buddy Dollars' Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 9), and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 11). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits.
Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary judgment is GRANTED, and the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision is AFFIRMED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on May 13, 2010, for an alleged disability beginning on April 1, 2009. (Tr. at 14). Plaintiff's application was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 14). An ALJ held a hearing, attended by both Plaintiff and his counsel, on October 9, 2012, and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act on February 8, 2013. (Tr. at 14-23). Plaintiff timely filed a Request for Review with the Appeals Council on March 19, 2013, which was subsequently denied on February 26, 2014, making the ALJ's decision final. (Tr. at 1-6). Plaintiff filed this civil action seeking a review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. No. 1).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, this 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.'" Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)). This Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).
As the Social Security Act provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), the Fourth Circuit defined "substantial evidence" as such:
Substantial evidence has been defined as being more than a scintilla and do[ing] 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.
See also Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) ("We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence").
The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that a reviewing court does not weigh the evidence again, nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome - so long as there is "substantial evidence" in the record to support the Commissioner's final decision. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). In reviewing for substantial evidence, a court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. The ALJ, and not the court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was "disabled" under the Social Security Act between April 1, 2009, and the date of his decision. Plaintiff bears the burden of proof to establish he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act in order to be entitled to benefits. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
Under the Social Security Act, there is a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals one of The Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the requirements of his past ...