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Philbrick-Morrison v. Saul

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

November 4, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Kristina Philbrick-Morrison's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 16). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision regarding her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that Defendant's decision to deny Plaintiff's Social Security benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, DENY Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgement, REVERSE the Commissioner's decision, and REMAND this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Philbrick-Morrison protectively filed her application for SSI on November 19, 2014. (Tr. at 12).[2] She alleged that she had been suffering from several physical and mental impairments.[3] (Tr. at 188). Her application was initially denied on April 10, 2015 and again upon reconsideration on August 26, 2015. (Doc. No. 17 at 2; Tr. at 1-5). A hearing was held on April 19, 2019 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 12). In the ALJ's decision, he ultimately concluded that Ms. Philbrick-Morrison was not disabled under 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act and denied her application in a decision dated June 6, 2017. (Tr. 12-27). The Appeals Council denied her request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 1-5). The ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and Ms. Philbrick-Morrison has requested judicial review.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         At step one, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Philbrick-Morrison had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and filing date of November 19, 2014.[4] (Tr. at 14). At step two, the ALJ concluded that she has the severe impairments of dissociative disorder, panic disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, chronic pain in her neck, back, and knees, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and obesity. (Tr. at 14). At step three, the ALJ concluded that her severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, app. 1 at 12.04, 12.06, or 12.08. (Tr. at 15). In assessing whether Ms. Philbrick's impairments met or medically equaled the listed impairments, the ALJ found that she had moderate limitation with regard to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. (Tr. at 16). As a prerequisite to step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Philbrick-Morrison had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work,

except occasional climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching; no climbing of ropes, ladders or scaffolds; no crawling; and avoiding concentrated exposure to hazards and vibrations. She can perform simple, routine, repetitive work that requires only occasional interaction with the general public.

         (Tr. at 17). In the RFC assessment, the ALJ considered the opinions of several clinicians and doctors. (Tr. at 17-25). The ALJ also considered Ms. Philbrick-Morrison's own testimony regarding her symptoms. (Tr. at 17). The ALJ concluded at step four that she is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 25). At step five, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform, rendering her ineligible for SSI. (Tr. at 25). The vocational expert (“VE”) testified that she would be able to perform jobs such as pace worker, stuffer, and hand packer.[5] (Tr. at 50). The Appeals Council denied review and Ms. Philbrick-Morrison appealed to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Tr. at 1-5).


         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, 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); see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         The Social Security Act provides that “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401), the Fourth Circuit defined “substantial evidence” thus:

Substantial evidence has been defined as being “more than a scintilla and do[ing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind ...

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