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Mills v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

April 28, 2017

MARILYNNE MILLS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. KEESLER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment - Social Security” (Document No. 12) and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13). The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and these motions are now ripe for disposition. After careful consideration of the written arguments, the administrative record, and applicable authority, the undersigned will order that “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment - Social Security” be denied; that Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” be denied; and that the Commissioner's decision be vacated and this matter be remanded for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Marilynne Mills (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about July 22, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405; and on or about July 29, 2013, she also filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 15, 194-195, 196-201). Both applications allege an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning June 1, 2013. Id. The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on January 8, 2014, and again after reconsideration on March 3, 2014. (Tr. 15, 128-140). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

         The medical evidence shows that your condition is not severe enough to be considered disabling.

We do not have sufficient vocational information to determine whether you can perform any of your past relevant work. However, based on the evidence in file, we have determined that you can adjust to other work.
It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 134, 137).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on or about March 18, 2014. (Tr. 15, 141-142). On July 30, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Nicolas R. Foster (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 15, 31-55). In addition, Kathleen Sampeck, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Megan Dawson, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 24, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 12-14, 15-26). On September 23, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on June 1, 2016. (Tr. 1-3, 10). The August 24, 2015 ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review request. (Tr. 1).

         Plaintiff's “Complaint” seeking a reversal of the ALJ's determination was filed in this Court on August 3, 2016. (Document No. 1). This matter was originally assigned to the Honorable Richard L. Voorhees, United States District Judge, on August 4, 2016. On November 2, 2016, the parties filed their “Joint Stipulation of Consent to Exercise Jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge” (Document No. 11), and this matter was then reassigned to Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler.

         “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment - Social Security” (Document No. 12) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 12-1) were filed December 5, 2016; and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) and “Memorandum In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) were filed January 31, 2017. Plaintiff has declined to file a response/reply in further support of her motion, and the time to do so has lapsed. See “Social Security Briefing Order, ” Case No. 3:13-MC-198-FDW, (Document No. 1) (W.D. N.C. Dec. 23, 2013).

         The pending motions are now ripe for review and disposition.

         II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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, 667 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 inconsistences 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).

         III. ...


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