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Wooten v. Berryhill

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

June 15, 2018

KEISHA L. WOOTEN, 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. 10) and Defendant's “Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17). 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 the Plaintiff's “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 10) be denied; that the Defendant's “Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Keisha Lavonne Wooten (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about October 3, 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 June 1, 2013. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 10, 196, 199). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's applications initially on January 21, 2014, and again after reconsideration on June 9, 2014. (Tr. 10, 111-22, 123-30, 131-40). In its “Notice[s] 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. 123, 131).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on or about July 3, 2014. (Tr. 10, 141-42). On June 1, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Todd Jacobson (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 10, 31-54). In addition, Robert E. Brabham, Jr., a vocational expert (“VE”), and David Lund, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 6, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 10-18). On August 17, 2016, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 194-95). The Appeals Council denied this request on June 14, 2017. (Tr. 1-3). The ALJ's 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 July 17, 2017. (Document No. 1). On October 26, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 9).

         Plaintiff's “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Rule 12(c) F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 10) and “Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Rule 12(c), F.R.Civ.P.” (Document No. 11) were filed November 16, 2017. Defendant's “Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) and “Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 18) were filed March 1, 2018. Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e).

         On May 3, 2018, the undersigned scheduled this matter for a hearing on June 7, 2018, and directed the parties to make a good faith attempt to resolve or narrow the issues. (Document No. 20). The parties filed a “Joint Notice” (Document No. 21) on May 21, 2013, reporting that their attempt to resolve or narrow the issues had failed.

         The undersigned held a hearing in this matter on June 7, 2018, allowing the parties one more opportunity to present their arguments. Based on the foregoing, the pending motions are now ripe for review and 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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