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Whitfield v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

KENNETH WHITFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

          MAX O. COGBURN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11). This matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. Having considered the motions and reviewed the pleadings, the Court enters the following Order.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         On July 4, 2015, Plaintiff Kenneth Whitfield concurrently filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II, and supplemental security income under Title XVI, of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). (Tr. 44). In both applications, Plaintiff alleged he became disabled beginning June 30, 2009. (Id.). Plaintiff’s claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, so he filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On August 18, 2017, ALJ Colin Fritz held a hearing for de novo consideration of Plaintiff’s claims. (Id.). Thereafter, on February 15, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision concluding Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 54). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on November 30, 2018, rendering the ALJ’s decision a final decision reviewable by this Court. (Tr. 1). Plaintiff exhausted all available administrative remedies, so this case is ripe for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court adopts and incorporates the ALJ’s factual findings as if fully set forth. Such findings are referenced in the substantive discussion which follows.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In considering cross-motions for summary judgment, this Court “examines each motion separately, employing the familiar standard” provided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Desmond v. PNGI Charles Town Gaming, 630 F.3d 351, 354 (4th Cir. 2011). Thus, each motion is reviewed “on its own merits ‘to determine whether either of the parties deserve judgment as a matter of law.’” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).

         In reviewing a disability determination, the Court “is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Federal courts do not conduct de novo review of the evidence. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Instead, our inquiry is limited to whether there is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. The Court will not “reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Id. (citation and alterations omitted). Put simply, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (citation and alterations omitted).

         “A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ’s ruling.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). Thus, “[t]he record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Id. If the Court has “no way of evaluating the basis for the ALJ’s decision, ‘the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.’” Id. (quoting Florida Power & Light v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985)); see Brown v. Colvin, 639 F. App’x 921, 922 (4th Cir. 2016) (recognizing courts do not “min[e] facts from the [administrative] record to support the ALJ’s decisions”). This ensures the ALJ can “adequately explain his reasoning . . . in the first instance.” Radford, 734 F.3d at 296.

         IV. SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

         The Court has closely read the transcript of Plaintiff's hearing, the record exhibits, and the ALJ’s decision. As explained below, the Court finds that the record contains an insufficient basis to conduct meaningful substantial-basis review. As such, the Court remands so the ALJ can adequately explain his reasoning in the first instance.

         A. SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION

         The Act defines “disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Commissioner uses a ...


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