United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
BRENDA K. JOYNER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOE L. WEBSTER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Brenda K. Joyner, brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for a Period of Disability ("POD") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Tide II of the Act. The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a POD and DIB on July 7, 2009 alleging a disability onset date of March 23, 2006. (Tr. 14, 137-38.) The application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 69-85.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 8.) At the July 7, 2011 hearing were Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 29-56.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 14-24.) On January 31, 2013 the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. (Id. at 1-5.)
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff was 48 years old on December 31, 2010, the date last insured. (Id. at 16, 23.) She had at least a high school education and was able to communicate in English. (Id. at 23.)
III. STANDARD FOR REVIEW
The Commissioner held that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Act. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). This Court's review of that decision is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992); 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." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla" "but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Id. (quoting Lam v. Celebresge, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)).
The Commissioner must make findings of fact and resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)). The Court does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence nor of the Commissioner's findings. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, to make credibility determinations, or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ)." Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)). The denial of benefits will be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support the determination. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The issue before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See id.; Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987),
IV. THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION
The Social Security Regulations define "disability" for the purpose of obtaining disability benefits as the "inability to do 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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To meet this definition, a claimant must have a severe impairment which makes it impossible to do previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Albright v. Comm'rof Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The ALJ must determine in sequence:
(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (i.e., whether the claimant is working). If so, the claimant ...