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Haynes v. Berryhill

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

March 11, 2018

CHRISTOPHER MARLIN HAYNES Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          DAVID C. KEESLER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11). This case has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(B). After careful consideration of the written arguments, the administrative record, and applicable authority, the undersigned will respectfully recommend that Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” be granted;” that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” be denied; and that the Commissioner's decision be vacated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Christopher Marlin Haynes (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). In or about April 2012, 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 September 24, 2010.[1] (Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 54, 363, 370). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on September 27, 2012, and again after reconsideration on or about November 28, 2012. (Tr. 54, 241, 258, 266). 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. We realize that your condition keeps you from doing any of your past jobs, but it does not keep you from doing less demanding work. Based on your age, education, and past work experience, you can do other work. It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 258).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on January 25, 2013. (Tr. 54, 276). On October 16, 2014, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Alice Jordan (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 54, 76-138). In addition, Leanna Hollenbeck, a vocational expert (“VE”), and James Toms, Plaintiff's attorney's legal assistant, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 6, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 51-70). On April 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on December 13, 2016. (Tr. 8, 24). The ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review request. (Tr. 8).

         Plaintiff's “Complaint” seeking a reversal of the ALJ's determination was filed in this Court on February 16, 2017. (Document No. 1). On March 1, 2017, the undersigned was assigned to this case as the referral Magistrate Judge. The Honorable Max O. Cogburn, Jr. was assigned to this matter as the presiding District Judge on September 1, 2017.

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) and the “Brief Of Plaintiff” (Document No. 10) were filed June 26, 2017; and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 12) were filed August 22, 2017.

         Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e). However, Plaintiff did file, with leave of the Court, a “Supplemental Brief” (Document No. 16) on December 22, 2017. See (Document Nos. 14 and 15). Defendant then filed a “Supplemental Memorandum Of Law In Further Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) on January 12, 2018.

         The pending motions are ripe for disposition, and therefore, a memorandum and recommendation to Judge Cogburn is now appropriate.

         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.DISCUS ...


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