United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
STEPHANIE A. LINARES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
GRAHAM C. MULLEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Memorandum in Support (Doc. No. 12), both filed on December 1, 2014; and Defendant Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15) and Memorandum of Law in Support (Doc. No. 16), both filed February 6, 2015. As ordered by the Court, the parties also filed supplemental briefs that addressed the recent Fourth Circuit decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). Plaintiff filed Plaintiff’s Supplemental Memorandum on April 30, 2015 (Doc. No. 19) and Defendant filed Defendant’s Reply to Plaintiff’s Supplemental Memorandum on May 12, 2015 (Doc. No. 20). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision which found her not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”).
Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s decision is VACATED.
On January 31, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with an alleged disability onset date of August 9, 2009. (Tr. 14, 146-49). Her claim was initially denied on July 8, 2011 and was denied again upon reconsideration on September 12, 2011. (Tr. 14).
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 5, 2011 (Tr. 14), and that hearing, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel, was held in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 30, 2013 before ALJ Wendell M. Sims. (Tr. 13-14). On February 21, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 14-25). On May 28, 2014, Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council was denied, rendering the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision in this case. (Tr. 1-4).
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff has a right to review of the Commissioner’s final decision, and she timely filed the present action on July 15, 2014. (Doc. No. 1). The parties’ Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
A. Standard of Review
Judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner in social security cases is authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and is limited to consideration of (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also 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”; “[i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). District courts do not review a final decision of the Secretary de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). A reviewing court must uphold the decision of the Commissioner, even in instances where the reviewing court would have come to a different conclusion, so long as the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). In reviewing for substantial evidence, a court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. The ALJ, and not the Court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
The issue before this Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.
The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was “disabled” under the Social Security Act between her alleged onset date of August 9, 2009 and the date of the ALJ’s decision.Plaintiff has the burden of proving she was disabled within the meaning of the Act in order to be entitled to benefits. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) uses a five step sequential evaluation process, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, for determining disability claims. If a claimant is found to be disabled or not disabled at any step, the inquiry ends and the adjudicator does not proceed further in the process. Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the twelve month durational requirement set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals one of The Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of her past relevant work; and, if unable to perform the requirements of past relevant work, (5) whether the claimant is able to ...