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Burr v. Berryhill

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

June 20, 2018

MELISSA ANN BURR, 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. 7) and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 8). 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” be denied; that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Melissa Ann Burr (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about June 24, 2014, 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 August 8, 2013. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 44, 200, 204).

         The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on or about August 18, 2014, and again after reconsideration on November 13, 2014. (Tr. 44, 123, 133). 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 rheumatoid arthritis, back injury, hardware in back, pain, and inflammation, and high blood pressure. 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. 133).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on January 13, 2015. (Tr. 44, 150). On December 14, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Michelle D. Cavadi (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 44, 62-86). In addition, Barbara Azzam, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Robert A. Whitlow, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 25, 2017, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 44-56). On March 20, 2017, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on August 9, 2017. (Tr. 1-4, 198). 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 November 21, 2017. (Document No. 1). On December 12, 2017, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 6).

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 7) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 7-1) were filed January 23, 2018; and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 8) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) were filed March 27, 2018.[1] 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. 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 June 24, 2014, and the date of her decision.[2] (Tr. 56). 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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