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Smith v. Berryhill

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

March 8, 2018

KAREN L. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. KEESLER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 12) and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14). The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), and immediate review is appropriate. After careful consideration of the written arguments, oral arguments, the administrative record, and applicable authority, the undersigned will direct that Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings …” (Document No. 12) be denied; that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Karen L. Smith (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On March 8, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405, and for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning February 17, 2013. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 13, 202, 207). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on July 3, 2013, and again after reconsideration on November 12, 2013. (Tr. 12, 120, 126, 132, 138, 142). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

The medical evidence shows that your condition is not severe enough to be considered disabling. You are able to think, act in your own interest, communicate, handle your own affairs, and adjust to ordinary emotional stresses without significant difficulties. Based on the description of the job performed as a server, we have concluded that you have the functional capacity to meet the functional demands of this type of work. It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 138).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on November 22, 2013. (Tr. 156). On June 11, 2015, Plaintiff appeared in Charlotte, North Carolina and testified via video conference hearing before Administrative Law Judge Mallette Richey (the “ALJ”) in Florence, Alabama. (Tr. 12, 30-62). In addition, Sandra M. Bruff, a vocational expert (“VE”), and David Lund, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing.[1] (Tr. 12, 31). On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff has been represented by Maria Concetta Mayo and Kristin Gordon Oakley, both of the Ricci Law Firm.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 20, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 12-23). On September 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on November 21, 2016. (Tr. 1-3, 8). The ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review request. (Tr. 1).

         Plaintiff's “Complaint” seeking reversal or remand of the ALJ's determination was filed in this Court on January 4, 2017. (Document No. 1). On April 10, 2017, the parties filed a “Joint Stipulation Of Consent To Jurisdiction By Magistrate Judge, ” and this matter was reassigned to the undersigned.

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 12) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Plaintiff's Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P” (Document No. 13) were filed May 7, 2017; and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15) were filed July 12, 2017.[2]Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See “Social Security Briefing Order, ” No. 3:13-MC-198-FDW, (Document No. 1) (W.D. N.C. Dec. 23, 2013) and Local Rule 7.2(e).

         On February 7, 2018, the undersigned scheduled this matter for a hearing on March 8, 2018, and directed the parties to make a good faith attempt to resolve or narrow the issues. (Document No. 16). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 18) on February 15, 2018, reporting that their attempt to resolve or narrow the issues had failed. The undersigned conducted the March 8, 2018 hearing.

         The pending motions are ripe for disposition.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

         The Fourth Circuit has made clear that it is not for a reviewing court to re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner - so long as that decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “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.'” Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401).

         Ultimately, it is the duty of the Commissioner, not the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) (“This court does not find facts or try the case de novo when reviewing disability determinations.”); 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 inconsistences in the medical evidence, and that it is the claimant who bears the risk of nonpersuasion.”). Indeed, so long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court disagrees with the final outcome. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

         III. ...


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