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Griffis v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division

July 22, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff William David Griffis' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 12), Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 17), and the supplemental briefs of the parties relating to the impact of the Fourth Circuit's recent decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), on Plaintiff's claims. (Dos. 21, 22). Having carefully considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the Court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order.


The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[1] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at one step, the SSA or Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") will issue a decision without proceeding to the next step in the evaluation. A claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is determined after step three has been completed, but before step four begins, in order to determine what level of physical and mental exertion the claimant can perform at work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) and § 416.945(a). The ALJ determines the RFC by assessing the claimant's ability to do physical and mental activities on a sustained basis, despite limitations from identified impairments and claimed symptoms that are reasonably consistent with objective medical evidence and supported by other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 404.1545, 416.929, and 416.945.

In addition to the five step process, regarding disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §401 et seq, the Plaintiff must show that she was disabled prior to her date last insured ("DLI"). Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 699 F.3d 337, 341 (4th Cir. 2012); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101, 404.130, 404.131.


The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (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, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

The Fourth Circuit has made clear that it is not for a reviewing court to re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner-so long as that decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Hancock v. Astrue, 657 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a scintilla and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401). Ultimately, it is the duty of the Commissioner, not the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) ("This court does not find facts or try the case de novo when reviewing disability determinations."); Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) ("We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence, and that it is the claimant who bears the risk of nonpersuasion."). Indeed, so long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court disagrees with the final outcome. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).


On October 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income. (Tr. 16). Plaintiff alleged that his disability began on October 5, 2009. ( Id. ). His claim was initially denied on March 9, 2010, and was denied upon reconsideration on July 6, 2010. ( Id. ). He then requested a hearing, received one, and was again denied on March 9, 2011 ( Id. ).

At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 5, 2009. (Doc. 8-3, 18). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in remission, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoral spine, Tarlov/arachnoid cyst of the lumbrosacral spine, depression disorder, and anxiety disorder. ( Id. at 18-19). At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments satisfied the Listings. (Id. at 19-21).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). ( Id. at 22). However, she limited Plaintiff to "performing unskilled work that involves no more than occasional interactions with the public." ( Id. ). Additionally, the ALJ found that:

The claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit, stand, and walk for about 6 hours each out of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb, including ladders. The claimant can frequently balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The claimant must be allowed to change positions between sitting and standing. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.

(Doc. 8-3, 22). The ALJ stated that the record showed Plaintiff was capable of performing light work ...

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