United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
ELIZABETH D. MANUEL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,  Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Elizabeth Manuel, brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of 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 her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on November 28, 2007, initially alleging a disability onset date of October 18, 2002. (Tr. 173-77.) She had previously filed an application in May 2004 that was denied by an Administrative Law Judge on October 26, 2007 ("the 2004 claim"). (Tr. at 28, 88-106.) Plaintiff subsequently filed the present application ("the 2007 claim"). Her application on the 2007 claim was denied initially (Tr. at 110, 117-21) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 111, 125-29). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 130-32.) Plaintiff, along with her non-attorney representative and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing on December 16, 2009. (Tr. at 9.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to November 28, 2007, so that the present 2007 claim included only time after the previously-adjudicated 2004 claim. (Tr. at 9, 24.) The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 17) and, on November 9, 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 her disability determination as to the 2007 claim, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 28, 2007, the application date (20 C.F.R. 416.971 et seq .).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: Cervical degenerative disc disease, status-post fusion surgery; headaches; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; asthma; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; depression with anxious features (20 C.F.R. 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) except she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; she is to avoid exposure to temperature extremes, pollutants, gas, dusts, fumes, lung irritants, and poor ventilation; she can only perform non-complex, routine, repetitive tasks; she cannot perform assembly line work.
(Tr. at 11-13.)
The ALJ then considered Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and the above residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determined that Plaintiff remained capable of performing her past relevant job as a spooling machine operator. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 17.)
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 ...