United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.
BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff John W. Davis ("Davis" or "Plaintiff") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin ("Commissioner" or "Defendant"). (Docs. 9, 11). Also before the Court is Davis's "Reply" analyzing the case of Harlan v. Colvin, No. 3:12CV443, 2013; WL 6729605, at *1 (W.D. N.C. Dec. 19, 2013). (Doc. 14). For the following reasons, this Court will DENY Davis's Motion for Summary Judgment, GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and AFFIRM the Commissioner's determination.
I. ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY
On January 28, 2010, Davis filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq ., and for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §1383 et seq ., with an alleged onset date of December 31, 2005. (Tr. 27). These claims were denied at the initial level, and later upon reconsideration. (Tr. 123-130, 139-45). Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing which was held before Administrative Law Judge Michelle D. Cavadi ("ALJ") on December 7, 2011. (Tr. 40-69).
A. The ALJ's Decision
The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 27-37). At step one, the ALJ found that Davis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of December 31, 2005. (Tr. 29, ¶ 1). At step two, the ALJ found that Davis suffered from the following severe impairments: depression, a learning disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. (Tr. 30, ¶ 3). At step three, the ALJ found that Davis's impairments did not meet the Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix 1. Next, the ALJ found that Davis has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567 and 416.967, but would be restricted to performance of work involving simple, routine and repetitive tasks in a non-production oriented setting, and an environment that requires no contact with the public and no more than occasional contact with co-workers or supervisors. (Tr. 31-35, ¶ 5). The ALJ then found that Davis could not perform his past relevant work but, based on the RFC and testimony from the vocational expert, there were significant jobs in the regional and national economies that he could perform. (Tr. 35-37). Therefore, the ALJ found that Davis was not disabled. After this unfavorable decision, Davis appealed to the Appeal Council who granted his request for review. (Tr. 10-15).
B. The Appeals Council Decision
The Appeals Council issued a decision that was partially favorable to Davis, finding a closed period of disability from December 31, 2005 through June 1, 2009. The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings at steps one through five for the period after June 1, 2009, but did not do so for the period of December 31, 2005 through June 1, 2009. (Tr. 11).
Specifically, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ was correct at steps one and two but erred at step three. The Appeals Council found that Davis met Listing 12.03 beginning on December 31, 2005 and ending on June 1, 2009. (Tr. 11). In doing so, the Appeals Council credited the mental health treatment notes of Dr. Murray Hawkinson and the April 8, 2013 opinion rendered by Dr. Alvin Smith. (Tr. 11-12).
The Appeals Council found that the Davis's condition improved as of June 2, 2009 "because there was a decrease in severity of his impairments so that they no longer met or equaled a listing." (Tr. 12). The Appeals Council then found that the medical improvement was related to Davis's ability to work and that beginning on June 2, 2009, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Davis could perform. (Tr. 12).
II. DAVIS'S APPEAL
Davis is seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of DIB under Title II. (Doc. 9-1, at 1). Davis argues (1) that the Commissioner erred by failing to follow the correct legal standard for finding medical improvement in a closed period case; and (2) that the Commissioner's decision that Davis did not meet Listing 12.03 is not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner disagrees. Davis asserts he is entitled to an award of disability benefits from June 2, 2009 forward or, in the alternative, seeks a remand. ( Id. at 18).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir.1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [a court] do[es] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589)).
A. The Appeals Council Followed the Correct Legal Standard for Finding Medical Improvement in a Closed Period Case
Davis has a two-fold argument regarding this issue. First, Davis argues that he was not given proper notice and that the Appeals Council should have remanded the case for a rehearing on whether or not medical improvement occurred. Second, Davis argues that the Appeals Council did not follow the eight steps set out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). The Court will address these arguments in turn.
1. Proper Notice Was Given
Davis contends that it was to his "great surprise" that the Appeals Council found a closed period of disability. (Doc. 9-1, at 6). The Court finds that this use of rhetoric is inappropriate because Plaintiff and his counsel were given advance notice that the Appeals Council intended to find a closed period of disability. (Tr. 10).
Nevertheless, Davis contends that he was entitled to notice of cessation of disability and should have been given a chance to reply, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1595(a) and (b). (Doc. 9-1, at 6). Davis admits that he received the notice from the Appeals Council dated April 19, 2013, but argues that it is not sufficient to meet the aforementioned regulation. ( Id. ).
Defendant states that 20 C.F.R. § 404.1595 is "not applicable to a closed period of disability within the adjudication of a single claim, where the individual was not previously receiving benefits." (Doc. 12, at 5). In the alternative, Defendant states that the notice complied with § 404.1595 and that nothing in the regulation requires a new hearing prior to a finding of medical improvement or cessation of benefits.
The Court finds that if § 404.1595 is applicable, it has been complied with in this instance.
The regulation provides that a person will receive advance notice when the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has determined that a person is no longer disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1595(a). The advance notice will give a summary of information the SSA has and reasons why the SSA considers the person not disabled. § 404.1595(b). Further, it offers a chance to reply. § 404.1595(b). The notice will state the medical information in the person's file and the work activity and how that bears on a finding of not disabled. § 404.1595(b). A person may give the appropriate ...