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Murdock v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

ANGELA REDMOND MURDOCK, 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 Reversing Or Modifying The Decision Of the Commissioner Of Social Security” (Document No. 7) and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9). 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 Summary Judgment Reversing Or Modifying The Decision Of the Commissioner Of Social Security” (Document No. 7) be denied; that the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Angela Redmond Murdock (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On October 9, 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 March 1, 2011. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 12, 194-197). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on November 18, 2013, and again after reconsideration on February 5, 2014. (Tr. 12, 108, 115). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

On your application you stated that you were disabled because of PTSD, back problems, depression, and seizures. In order to get benefits, disability had to be established on or before 03/31/2011 because insurance coverage ended on that date. The medical evidence shows that your condition was 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. 115).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on March 13, 2014. (Tr. 12, 127-129). On December 7, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Wendell M. Sims (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 12, 30-86). In addition, Celena Earl, a vocational expert (“VE”) and William Keith Murdock, the claimant's husband, also appeared and testified. Lynne Sizemore attended the hearing as Plaintiff's representative. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 20, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 9-24). On or about January 20, 2016, Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on January 25, 2017. (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 a reversal of the ALJ's determination was filed in this Court on March 15, 2017. (Document No. 1). On July 5, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Document No. 6)

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment Reversing Or Modifying The Decision Of the Commissioner Of Social Security” (Document No. 7) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment Reversing Or Modifying Commissioner's Decision” (Document No. 8) were filed July 14, 2017; and the “Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) and “Memorandum In Support Of The Commissioner's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) were filed September 20, 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 8, 2018, and directed the parties to make a good faith attempt to resolve or narrow the issues. (Document No. 11). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 12) on March 1, 2018, stating that their attempt to narrow or resolve the issues failed. The hearing was then re-scheduled for March 28, 2018. (Document No. 13).

         The undersigned held a hearing in this matter to allow 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 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 March 1, 2011, and the date last insured, March 31, 2011.[1] (Tr. 12). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she 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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