United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
ERIC L. CLAY, 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 Eric Clay ("Plaintiff"), proceeding pro se, 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 ("DIB") in 2009, alleging a disability onset date of March 17, 2009. (Tr. 133-34) His application was denied initially (Tr. at 77-80, 49-60) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 81-84, 61-72). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (See Tr. at 85-92.) Plaintiff, his attorney, and an impartial vocational expert attended the subsequent hearing on November 19, 2010. (Tr. at 10.) Following this proceeding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 23) and, on September 5, 2012, 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 30, 2013.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 17, 2009, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar II disorder, chronic headaches, unspecified derangement of the knee, and right trigger finger (20 CFR 404.1520(c))
4. 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 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526)
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant can sit for up to two hours and walk or stand for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, using a cane to ambulate. The claimant cannot squat or kneel. The claimant can use his right hand for tasks on a frequent, but not continuous, basis. The claimant can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks and meet the mental demands of "unskilled" work in an environment with limited public contact.
(Tr. at 12-16.)
Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to return to any of his past relevant work. (Tr. at 21.) However, considering Plaintiff's age and education, along with the above findings regarding Plaintiff's work experience and residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ ultimately determined that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform." (Tr. at 22) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 404.1569a). Accordingly, he determined that Plaintiff was not under a "disability, " as defined in the Act, from his alleged onset date of March 17, 2009 through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 22.)
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 ...