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Wilson v. Saul

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

September 25, 2019

HERBERT JAMES WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          Martin Reidinger, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8] and the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 10].

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Plaintiff, Herbert James Wilson (“Plaintiff”), filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of June 21, 2011. [Transcript (“T.”) at 185-186]. The Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [T. at 111-114, 118-124]. Upon Plaintiff’s request, a hearing was held on August 22, 2013 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. at 63-91]. On September 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date of June 21, 2011. [T. at 47-62]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review, thereby making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. at 9-13].

         On January 6, 2015, the Plaintiff initiated a civil action in this Court seeking review of the ALJ’s 2013 decision. [See Civil No. 3:15-cv-00005-RJC, Doc. 1]. On August 11, 2015, the Honorable Robert J. Conrad, Jr., United States District Judge, entered an Order granting the Defendant’s consent motion for remand pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings. [Id., Doc. 10]. On October 13, 2015, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the case to the ALJ to give further consideration to the Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity and further evaluate the treating source opinions and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence. [T. at 1326-1330].

         On December 7, 2016, a second hearing was held before the same ALJ. [T. at 1296-1325]. On March 1, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date June 21, 2011 through October 26, 2015. [T. 1342-1372]. The ALJ’s written decision, however, found that the Plaintiff had been disabled within the meaning of the Act since October 27, 2015. [Id.]. The Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s 2017 decision, thereby making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. at 1284-1289].

         The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court’s review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing 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, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ’s decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[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.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).

         III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[the] inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration Regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If an applicant’s claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant’s application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which significantly limit the claimant’s ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant’s impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant’s medically determinable impairments and ...


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