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Hasselwander v. Berryhill

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

March 9, 2018

ROBERT JOHN HASSELWANDER, 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 the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16). 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. 12) be denied; that “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Robert John Hasselwander (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about November 6, 2013, 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 January 1, 2008. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 10, 194). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on May 20, 2014, and again after reconsideration on or about July 30, 2014. (Tr. 10, 128, 137). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

We did not obtain any additional information because this evidence permits us to fully evaluate the condition. On your application you stated that you were disabled because of PTSD, anxiety, delusional disorder, hypermania. In order to get benefits, disability had to be established on or before 12/31/2013 because insurance coverage ended on that date. The medical evidence shows that your condition is not severe enough prior to the end of your insured period to be considered disabling.
Your mental condition was not severe enough prior to the end of your insured period to be considered disabling.
You were able to think, act in your own interest, communicate, handle your own affairs, and adjust to ordinary emotional stresses without significant difficulties.
The evidence does not show a condition that would prevent most work-related activities. Therefore, based on all of the medical and non-medical evidence, we have decided that you were not disabled on or before coverage ended according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 137) (emphasis added).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on August 13, 2014. (Tr. 10, 145). On May 26, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Valorie Stefanelli (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 10, 42-79). In addition, Melissa Brinson, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Debra Hasselwander, Plaintiff's wife, appeared at the hearing, as well as David Lund, Plaintiff's attorney. (Tr. 10, 42, 44). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff sought to amend his alleged onset date to November 11, 2009, but the ALJ determined that changing the date would not affect the outcome of the decision. (Tr. 10); see also (Tr. 46).

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 30, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 7-9, 10-36). On October 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on December 6, 2016. (Tr. 1-3, 6). 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 18, 2017. (Document No. 1). On May 2, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 11).

         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 June 8, 2017; and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16) and “Memorandum In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) were filed August 22, 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, 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. 18). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 20) on March 1, 2018, that their attempt to resolve or narrow the issues had failed.

         The undersigned held a hearing in this matter on March 8, 2018, allowing the parties one more opportunity to present their arguments. 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 ...


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