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Perkins v. Saul

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

July 30, 2019

CHRISTOPHER PERKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] 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. 8) and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10). 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. 8) be granted; that “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) be denied: and that the Commissioner's decision be vacated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Christopher Perkins (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about September 2, 2014, 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, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning June 15, 2014. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 13, 249). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on December 17, 2014, and again after reconsideration on December 16, 2015. (Tr. 13, 102, 108). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

We reviewed the facts in your case and decided that alcoholism is a contributing factor material to a finding of disability. This means you would not be disabled if you stopped using alcohol. Therefore, we cannot consider you disabled under the law.
On your application you stated that you are disabled because of depression, asthma, exposure to chemical (sulfuric acid), sleeping disorder, chronic lumbosacral strain, tinnitus, eczema, hypertension, worse knee, reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and history of right ACL tear.
The medical information shows that all of your other impairments have also been considered and would not make you disabled. It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Security Act.

(Tr. 108).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on December 22, 2015. (Tr. 13, 111-112). On December 14, 2017, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Valorie Stefanelli (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 13, 36-69). In addition, Celena Earl, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Tracy Funk, Plaintiff's non-attorney representative, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 16, 2018, denying Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 10-12, 13-30). On July 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on September 12, 2018. (Tr. 1, 245-247). 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 9, 2018. (Document No. 1). On February 14, 2019, the parties consented to the Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 7)

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 8) and “Plaintiff's Memorandum In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 9) were filed April 1, 2019; and “Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 10) and “Memorandum In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 11) were filed May 30, 2019. 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.”). “[A] reviewing court must uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Peace v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 2406626, at *1 (4th Cir. June 7, 2019) (quoting Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017)). 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 15, 2014, and March 31, 2017, the date last insured. (Tr. 13, 15, 29). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that he 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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