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Seamon v. Berryhill

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

August 21, 2017

ERIC H. SEAMON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

          Max O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the court on plaintiff's (#11) and defendant's (#15) cross Motions for Summary Judgment. The matter is ripe for review. Having carefully considered each Motion for Summary Judgment, the court enters the following findings and Order.

         FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS

         I. Administrative History

         On July 27, 2012, and September 11, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental social security income under Title XVI, respectively. (Tr. 236, 245). Plaintiff alleged a period of disability beginning January 15, 2011. (Tr. 50). After these applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 167, 180, 188), a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 3, 2014. (Tr. 66). The ALJ issued a decision on April 10, 2015, in which she found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 50-60). Plaintiff requested review of this decision. (Tr. 31). This request was denied by the Appeals Council on September 27, 2016. (Tr. 1). Therefore, the ALJ's April 10, 2015 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then initiated this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         II. Factual Background

         The court adopts and incorporates the ALJ's factual findings herein as if fully set forth. Such findings are referenced in the substantive discussion which follows.

         III. Standard of Review

         The only issues on review are whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Review by a federal court is not de novo, Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); rather, inquiry is limited to whether there was “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, supra. Even if the undersigned were to find that a preponderance of the evidence weighed against the Commissioner's decision, the Commissioner's decision would have to be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, supra. The Fourth Circuit has explained substantial evidence review as follows:

the district court reviews the record to ensure that the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and that its legal findings are free of error. If the reviewing court decides that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, it may affirm, modify, or reverse the ALJ's ruling with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling. The record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence. If the reviewing court has no way of evaluating the basis for the ALJ's decision, then the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         IV. Substantial Evidence

         A. Introduction

         The court has read the transcript of plaintiff's administrative hearing, closely read the decision of the ALJ, and reviewed the relevant exhibits contained in the extensive administrative record. The issue is not whether a court might have reached a different conclusion had it been presented with the same testimony and evidentiary materials, but whether the decision of the administrative law judge is supported by substantial evidence. The court finds that the ALJ's decision was, in part, not based on substantial evidence.

         B. Sequential Evaluation

         A five-step process, known as “sequential” review, is used by the Commissioner in determining whether a Social Security claimant is disabled. The Commissioner evaluates a disability claim under Title XVI pursuant to the following five-step analysis:

a. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be “disabled” regardless of medical findings;
b. An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found to be disabled;
c. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment that meets the durational requirement and that “meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1” of Subpart P of Regulations No. 4, a finding of “disabled” will be made without consideration of vocational factors;
d. If, upon determining residual functional capacity (RFC), the Commissioner finds that an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” must be made;
e. If an individual's residual functional capacity precludes the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, and past work experience, must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.

20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work ...


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