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Beilharz v. Saul

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

July 30, 2019

MELINDA BEILHARZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David C. Keesler, Judge

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15). 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 “Plaintiffs Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) be granted; that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15) be denied; and that the Commissioner's decision be vacated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Melinda Beilharz (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about June 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability 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 September 14, 2014. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 16, 55, 261). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on October 16, 2015, and again after reconsideration on December 21, 2015. (Tr. 16, 202, 209). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

We have determined that your condition is not severe enough to keep you from working. We considered the medical and other information, your age, education, training, and work experience in determining how your condition affects your ability to work.
You said you are unable to work because of:
Mental problems, suicidal, neck & back problems, PTSD, disability in both hands due to arthritis problem with both sacroiliac joints leading to difficulty in walking.
The medical evidence shows that you do have severe mental and physical impairments which do limit your ability to do some work related activities. However, you can still do work that does not require heavy lifting and is simple in nature.
Your condition results in some limitations in your ability to perform work related activities. We have determined that your condition is not severe enough to keep you from working. We considered the medical and other information, your age and education in determining how your condition affects your ability to work. 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.

(Tr. 209-210).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on January 7, 2016. (Tr. 16, 216-218).

         On October 26, 2017, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Todd D. Jacobson (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 16, 55-83, 250-253). In addition, Ellen Levine, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Caryn Brzykcy, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id. See also (Tr. 214).

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 17, 2018, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 13-26). On March, 12, 2018, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on November 21, 2018. (Tr. 1, 256). 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 January 14, 2019. (Document No. 1). On April 11, 2019, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 10)

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 13) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 14) were filed June 27, 2019; and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 15) and “Memorandum In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16) were filed July 1, 2019. “Plaintiff's Response To Defendant's Memorandum In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) was filed on July 10, 2019.

         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 June 22, 2015, and the date of his decision.[2] (Tr. 16, 25). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled ...


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