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Holt v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 24, 2015

LISA M. HOLT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM L. OSTEEN, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiff Lisa M. Holt ("Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended and codified at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Doc. 10), and the Commissioner has filed its own Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 15). Additionally, the administrative record has been certified to this court for review.[1]

For the reasons set forth below, this court will grant Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and deny the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. This action is remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to permit the Commissioner to consider the post-hearing evidence presented by Plaintiff.[2], [3]

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on January 25, 2010, alleging a disability beginning on May 1, 2007. The claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May 24, 2011 and, in a decision dated June 20, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. (Tr. at 45-53.) On July 25, 2012, the Appeals Council subsequently 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.)

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: splenic artery aneurysm, history of fusion back surgery, history of right elbow surgery, and depression with anxiety. (Id. at 47.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. (Id. at 48.)

The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the following limitations: only occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; can engage in occasional bending, balancing, stooping, crouching and crawling; can never climb ladders or ropes; should avoid hazardous machinery and occupations with vibrations; and can engage in work consisting of simple, routine, repetitive tasks. (Id. at 49.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work but, that considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy which she was capable of performing, including: cashier II, store rental clerk and cafeteria attendant. (Id. at 52-53, 92.) Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 53.)

After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff filed the present action on September 6, 2012.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal law authorizes judicial review of Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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.

In undertaking this limited review, the court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, "disability" means the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'" Id . (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[4]

"The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. ...


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