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Carver v. Berryhill

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

October 25, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the court on plaintiff's (#9) and defendant's (#15) cross Motions for Summary Judgment, as well as plaintiff's Response to defendant's motion (#17). The matter is ripe for review. Having carefully considered each motion and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings and Order.


         I. Administrative History

         On March 11, 2013, plaintiff applied for supplementary security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability that commenced on January 9, 2012. (Tr. 179). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 8, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 14, 2013. (Tr. 100; Tr. 107). On December 9, 2013, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 111). The hearing was held on November 21, 2014. (Tr. 34). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing, along with a vocational expert. (Tr. 34-58). A supplemental hearing was held on April 9, 2015. (Tr. 59). On May 29, 2015, an ALJ issued a written decision denying plaintiff's claim on the basis that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 11-23). On July 24, 2015, plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision; the Council denied plaintiff's request on December 7, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of defendant. (Tr. 1, 31). Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         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 ...

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