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Passeri v. Berryhill

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

October 16, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g). This matter is now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 24, 2013, Plaintiff, Elizabeth Y. Passeri, filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability benefits. (Doc. No. 8-3, p. 26). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. On April 2, 2015, Plaintiff, her representative, and a vocational expert appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Keith C. Pilkey. Id. The ALJ, on May 4, 2015, issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). Id. at 38. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) would allow her to perform sedentary work, and there were jobs that existed in significant number that Plaintiff could perform. Id. at 38.

         Plaintiff then filed a request for a review but was denied by the Appeals Council on September 8, 2016. Id. at 1-4. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed this present action (Doc. No. 1) on November 7, 2016. Both parties have moved for summary judgment and their motions are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g).


         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), limits this Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). This Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Thus, this Court “‘must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.'” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)).

         As the Social Security Act provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, the Fourth Circuit has defined “substantial evidence” as:

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.”

782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see also 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 . . . .”)

         The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that a reviewing court does not weigh the evidence again, nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome-so long as there is “substantial evidence” in the record to support the Commissioner's final decision, the decision should be affirmed. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). The ALJ, and not the Court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Under the Social Security Act, there is a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). Step one is to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; if claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, they will be found not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Step two is to determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At step three, if 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, then the claimant will be found disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Step four is to determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Lastly, step five is to consider whether the claimant is able to make an adjustment to other work, considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). While the claimant bears the burden of production and proof during the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that other work is available in the national economy which the claimant could perform. Pass v. Charter, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 5, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Doc. No. 8-3, p. 27). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, apnea, cardiac dysrhythmia with pacemaker, attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, and anxiety. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listing. Id. ...

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