United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Donnell Pettiford ("Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on January 12, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of November 23, 2004. (Tr. at 32, 81-83.) His application was denied initially (Tr. at 27, 41-44) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 28, 47-49). Thereafter, he requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 52.) Present at the hearing, held on August 6, 2009, were Plaintiff, his attorney, an impartial vocational expert, and an impartial medical expert. (Tr. at 32.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged disability onset date to February 6, 2007. The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 40) and, on August 27, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).
In rendering his disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 6, 2007, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: asthma (stable), diabetes mellitus, low back pain, and allergic rhinitis (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except [the claimant should] avoid pulmonary irritants.
(Tr. at 34-35.)
The ALJ then considered the vocational expert's testimony regarding the above residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determined that, although Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. at 39.) Plaintiff therefore was not under a "disability, " as defined in the Act, from his alleged onset date through the date last insured. (Tr. at 39-40.)
II. LEGAL STANDARD
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 a 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 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) (internal quotation omitted).
"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. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It 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) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "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 (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]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is ...