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Smith v. Berryhill

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

November 21, 2017

ALICIA Y. SMITH Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Graham C. Mullen, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15). Having carefully considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order.


         I. Administrative History

         Plaintiff Alicia Y. Smith (“Smith” or “Plaintiff”) filed her application for Disability Insurance Benefits in August 2011, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2010. After Plaintiff's claim was denied both initially and on reconsideration, she requested and was granted a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Wendell M. Sims (“the ALJ”). The ALJ issued a decision on March 22, 2013, that Plaintiff was not disabled, from which Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council remanded the case for further consideration on April 18, 2014. A second hearing was held before the ALJ on November 19, 2014. At this hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to February 28, 2013, making the relevant period of disability February 28, 2013, through the date last insured, December 31, 2013. On January 28, 2015, the ALJ issued his determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. On April 1, 2016, Plaintiff's request for review was denied, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed this action, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         II. Factual Background

         In his decision, the ALJ at the first step determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. (Tr. 34). At the second step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the following severe impairment: ulcerative colitis. (Id.). At the third step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 35).

         The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work “except that she is limited to frequent climbing, balancing, stooping and crouching.” (Id.). Based on these limitations, the ALJ found in the fourth step that Plaintiff is is capable of performing her past relevant work as a stock clerk. (Tr. 40). Further, at the fifth step, the ALJ concluded that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform as well. (Tr. 40-41). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 42).

         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. Schweiker, 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, 402 U.S. at 400. 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, 907 F.2d at 1456.

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff's first assignment of error is that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Hanson.

         A treating physician is a physician who has observed the plaintiff's condition over a prolonged period of time. Mitchell v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 185, 187 (4th Cir. 1983). Under Social Security regulations, an ALJ “is required to give ‘controlling weight' to opinions proffered by a claimant's treating physicians so long as the opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 867 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)) (alterations in original). “The regulation's treating physician rule accords the greatest weight-controlling weight-to the opinions of treating sources, because those ‘sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective ...

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