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Harrold v. Berryhill

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

March 11, 2018

JEREMIAH HARROLD, 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. 7) 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 denied; that Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Jeremiah Harrold (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about October 29, 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 October 28, 2011. (Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 16, 251).[1] The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on or about September 11, 2014, and again after reconsideration (Tr. 16, 88-90, 107-108, 128, 137).

         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 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. 137) (emphasis added).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on December 10, 2014. (Tr. 16, 145). On March 23, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Nancy L. Brock (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 16, 38-70). In addition, Chelsea Brown, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Timothy D. Welborn, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 1, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 13-30). On or about September 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on October 20, 2016. (Tr. 1-5, 10). 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 was filed in this Court on December 16, 2016. (Document No. 1). On January 11, 2017, the undersigned was assigned to this case as the referral Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 7) and “Memorandum In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 7-1) were filed May 4, 2017; and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 12) were filed August 7, 2017. Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e).

         The pending motions are ripe for disposition, and therefore, a memorandum and recommendation to the Honorable Frank D. Whitney 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. 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 October 28, 2011, and the date of her decision.[2] (Tr. 16). 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. 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 her/his past relevant work - if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience he/she can make an adjustment to other ...

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