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Lewis v. Berryhill

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

June 18, 2018

KAREN E. LEWIS, 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 F. R. Civ. Pro.12(c)” (Document No. 19) and “Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 23). 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 Judgment on the Pleadings F. R. Civ. Pro.12(c)” be granted; that “Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment” be denied; and that the Commissioner's decision be vacated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Karen E. Lewis (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about August 30, 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, and on or about September 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 19, 243, 248). These applications alleged an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning June 6, 2013. (Tr. 19). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's applications initially on or about November 15, 2013, and again after reconsideration on December 10, 2013. (Tr. 19, 129, 149, 157). 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. We do not have sufficient vocational information to determine whether you can perform any or 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. 149, 157).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on December 23, 2013. (Tr. 19, 167). On November 30, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Susan Poulos (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 19, 40-68). In addition, Jackie Kennedy-Merritt, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Vaughn Clauson, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 18, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 16-32). On March 10, 2016, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on April 24, 2017. (Tr. 1, 14). 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 June 27, 2017. (Document No. 1). On October 26, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 13).

         Plaintiff's “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings F. R. Civ. Pro.12(c)” (Document No. 19) and Plaintiff's “Memorandum in Support of Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings F. R. Civ. Pro. 12(c)” (Document No. 20) were filed December 7, 2017; and “Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 23) and “Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment” (Document No. 24) were filed January 31, 2018. Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e).

         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. ...


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