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Gilman v. Berryhill

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

January 5, 2018

AMY A. GILMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr., United District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 15), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 14).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Amy Gilman (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Defendant Social Security Commissioner's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. (Doc. No. 1). Astoundingly, Plaintiff's social security claim has been pending at various levels of the administrative process for over ten years. On December 20, 2006, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (Doc. Nos. 8 to 8-25: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 136-41). Plaintiff alleged an inability to work due to disabling conditions beginning on May 1, 2006. (Id. at 137). She later amended her application to allege disability beginning on January 1, 2006. (Id. at 140). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially on May 3, 2007, and again after reconsideration on October 5, 2007. (Id. at 69-78, 80-88). Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing. (Id. at 90-91).

         On July 17, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 42-64). Due to new evidence, a supplemental hearing was held on December 17, 2008, at which Plaintiff neither appeared nor testified, but at which her counsel did appear. (Id. at 21-41). The ALJ issued a decision on January 15, 2009, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 9-20). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on or about January 21, 2009, which the Appeals Council denied on May 27, 2010. (Id. at 1-8).[1] On July 30, 2010, Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review of her case and it was remanded on June 10, 2011 based on a consent motion for reversal and remand by Defendant. Gilman v. Astrue, 1:10-CV-00158-MR-DLH (W.D. N.C. filed July 30, 2010).

         Following the District Court's remand, another hearing was held on February 22, 2012 before the ALJ. (Tr. at 453-73). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Id.). The ALJ issued a decision on April 12, 2012, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 426-46). The Appeals Council did not review the decision within sixty days of the decision date, and thus it became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff again filed a complaint in federal court seeking judicial review of her case and again her case was remanded based on a consent motion for reversal and remand field by Defendant. Gilman v. Astrue, 1:12-CV-00224-MR-DLH (W.D. N.C. filed August 9, 2012) (Tr. 1009-013 (Complaint); 1014-020 (Remand Order)).

         Following the District Court's remand, yet another hearing was held on October 7, 2013 before a new ALJ. (Tr. at 908-49). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Id.).

         The ALJ issued a decision on October 22, 2013, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 426-46). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on or around November 26, 2013, and the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request and ordered remand to the ALJ on November 10, 2014 because the ALJ improperly considered Plaintiff's polysubstance abuse before completing the sequential evaluation procession. (Id. at 844; 1054-59). The Appeals Council instructed the ALJ on remand to first determine whether Plaintiff is disabled, and if the Plaintiff is found disabled, then to determine whether drug addiction or alcoholism are material to the determination. (Id. at 1056-057).

         On February 27, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. (Id. at 875-901). The ALJ issued a decision on June 9, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 810-39). The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, (Id. at 841); therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff's Complaint seeking judicial review and a remand of her case was filed in this Court on October 8, 2015. (Doc. No. 1). Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 11-1), were filed April 29, 2016; and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 15), and Defendant's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 14), were filed September 1, 2016 and September 2, 2016, respectively. Plaintiff did not file a response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and the time for doing so has passed. The pending motions are ripe for adjudication.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was under a “disability” as that term of art is defined for Social Security purposes, at any time between January 1, 2006, and the date of his decision on June 9, 2015.[2] (Tr. at 831). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from January 1, 2006, through the date of his decision, June 9, 2015. (Tr. at 810-39).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity-if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509-if no, not disabled;
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listings in appendix 1 and meets the duration requirement-if yes, disabled;
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work-if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience he or she can make an adjustment to other work-if yes, not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not ...


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