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Clark v. Berryhill

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

March 9, 2018

JOSEPH P. CLARK, 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. 10) and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14). The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and these motions are ripe for disposition. After careful consideration of the written arguments, the administrative record, applicable authority, and oral arguments, the undersigned will direct that Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ. P.” (Document No. 10) be denied; that the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Joseph P. Clark (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about January 31, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning November 7, 2011. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 24, 163). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on or about June 26, 2014, and again after reconsideration on September 15, 2014. (Tr. 24, 98, 108). 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. We do not have sufficient vocational information to determine whether you can perform any of your past relevant work. However, based on the evidence in file, we have determined that you can adjust to other work. It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 108).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on October 10, 2014. (Tr. 24, 116). On December 17, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Keith C. Pilkey (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 24, 39-57). In addition, Kathleen H. Robbins, a vocational expert (“VE”), and David Lund, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 15, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 21-34). On March 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on February 9, 2017. (Tr. 1-3, 20). 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 a reversal of the ALJ's determination, or in the alternative remand for a new hearing, was filed in this Court on March 28, 2017. (Document No. 1). On July 5, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 9)

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 10) and Plaintiff's “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Plaintiff's Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 11) were filed July 25, 2017; and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15) were filed October 30, 2017.[1] Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e).

         On February 7, 2018, this matter was scheduled for a hearing on March 8, 2018, and the parties were directed to make a good faith attempt to narrow or resolve the pending issues. (Document No. 16). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 18) on February 26, 2018, informing the Court that their attempt had failed.

         The undersigned held a hearing in this matter on March 8, 2018, allowing the parties one more opportunity to present their arguments. Based on the foregoing, the pending motions are now 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. DISCUSSION

         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 November 7, 2011, and the date of his decision.[2] (Tr. 24). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. ...


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