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Holman v. Berryhill

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

March 14, 2018

JAMES A. HOLMAN, 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 Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13). 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, and applicable authority, the undersigned will direct that “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) be denied; that the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff James A. Holman (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). In March 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 July 1, 2012, which was later amended to July 31, 2014. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 18, 214, 221). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on May 3, 2013, and again after reconsideration on August 5, 2013. (Tr. 18, 134, 142). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

On your application you stated that you are disabled because of back problems, a cracked spine, vision problems in your right eye, severe vertigo, liver problems, high cholesterol, nausea, and dizziness.
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. 142).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on or about August 19, 2013. (Tr. 18, 160). On June 8, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Scott C. Firestone (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 18, 33-71). In addition, Katharine Bradford, a vocational expert (“VE”), and David R. Paletta, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 10, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 15-28). On November 6, 2015, 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, 7). 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 “judicial review by this Court and the entry of a judgment for such relief as may be proper, including costs” was filed in this Court on January 10, 2017. (Document No. 1, p.2). On May 2, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction, and this case was reassigned. (Document No. 9)

         “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) and “Plaintiff's Brief In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10-1) were filed May18, 2017; and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) were filed August 14, 2017. 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 28, 2018, and directed the parties to make a good faith attempt to resolve or narrow the issues. (Document No. 15). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 16) on March 9, 2018, reporting that their attempt to resolve or narrow the issues had failed. The pending motions are now ripe for disposition.

         After further review of this case, the undersigned has decided to cancel the scheduled hearing and issue this decision.

         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 July 31, 2014, and the date last insured, March 31, 2016.[1] (Tr. 18). 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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