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Ivey v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2019

ROSA CAMILLA IVEY, 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 “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary on “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11) and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14). 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. 11) be denied; that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this case, Plaintiff Rosa Camilla Ivey (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about September 17, 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 April 26, 2013. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 15, 241). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on or about March 20, 2014, and again after reconsideration on or about August 1, 2014. (Tr. 15, 164, 173).

         In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

The medical evidence shows that your condition will not remain severe enough for 12 continuous months 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. Although the condition is severe, it is not expected to remain disabling for at least twelve continuous months as the law requires.
We do not have sufficient vocational information to determine whether you will be able to perform any of your past relevant work in the future. However, based on the evidence in file, we have determined that you will be able to adjust to other work.
It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 173).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on August 29, 2014. (Tr. 15, 182). On October 12, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Susan Poulos (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 15, 36-65). In addition, Brenda Cartwright, Ed.D., a vocational expert (“VE”), and Lindsey Robison, one of Plaintiff's attorneys, appeared at the hearing. Id. Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to September 17, 2013. (Tr. 15, 64).

         This is not Plaintiff's first disability case. A prior unfavorable decision was issued by a different ALJ on June 26, 2013, with regard to Plaintiff's prior Title II and Title XVI claims that alleged disability beginning on January 1, 2010, which was not appealed. (Tr. 15, 69-77). The date of the prior decision is before the amended alleged onset date in this case. In that earlier case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had several severe impairments: chronic abdominal pain secondary to a combination of gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome; depression; and anxiety. (Tr. 71). The ALJ found in that first case that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 15, 77).

         In this case, the ALJ likewise issued an unfavorable decision on February 15, 2017, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 15-30). On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on December 13, 2017. (Tr. 1-3, 240). The ALJ decision thus 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 February 13, 2018. (Document No. 1). On August 13, 2018, the parties consented to the Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 13)

         “Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum Of Law In Support Of A Motion For Summary Judgment Pursuant To Fed.R.Civ.P. 56” (Document No. 12) were filed June 19, 2018. “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) and “Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15) were filed August 13, 2018. Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e).

         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 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 September 16, 2013, and the date her decision.[1] (Tr. 29). 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity -if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509 - if no, not disabled;
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listings in appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement -if yes, disabled;
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her/his past relevant work - ...

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