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Caulkins v. Saul

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

November 18, 2019

VANCE CAULKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENNETH D. BELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Vance Caulkins's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 7) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10), as well as the parties' briefs and exhibits. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision denying Mr. Caulkins's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED; Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Caulkins applied for disability benefits on January 23, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2010. (Tr. at 129-35; 836).[2] His application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. (Tr. at 78, 88, 836). After conducting a hearing on September 12, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John L. McFadyen denied his application in a decision dated October 22, 2013. (Tr. at 14-25, 836). The Appeals Council denied his request for review. (Tr. at 1, 836). Mr. Caulkins appealed his claim to the United States District Court on March 13, 2015. (Tr. at 975-78). The District Court remanded the claim back to the Appeals Council (“AC”) in an order dated December 11, 2015. (Tr. at 979-90).[3] The AC directed the ALJ to provide Mr. Caulkins the opportunity for a new hearing, to take any further action needed to complete the administrative record, and to issue a new decision. (Tr. at 993, 836).

         On December 13, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing in accordance with the AC's mandate. (Tr. at 860-892). In a decision dated January 31, 2017, the ALJ determined that Mr. Caulkins was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act from December 1, 2010, through December 31, 2014, the last date insured. (Tr. at 853). The AC denied Mr. Caulkins's request for review of the January 2017 decision. (Tr. at 820-23). The ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and Mr. Caulkins has requested judicial review.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         The ALJ followed the required five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration to determine if Mr. Caulkins was disabled under the law during the relevant period.[4] At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Caulkins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of December 1, 2010 through his date last insured on December 31, 2014. (Tr. at 838, Finding 2). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Caulkins had the following severe impairments: status-post left inguinal hernia repair, recurrent left inguinal hernia, and neuritis of the ilioinguinal nerve. (Tr. at 838, Finding 3). The ALJ considered Mr. Caulkins's impairments under listings in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, at step three and found that they did not meet or medically equal any listing. (Tr. at 845, Finding 4).

         The ALJ, at step four, found that Mr. Caulkins has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). (Tr. at 845). The ALJ further found that while Mr. Caulkins was unable to perform any past relevant work, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, he could have performed other jobs that exist in significant number in the national economy through the date last insured. (Tr. at 852, Finding 6 & Finding 10).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         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, 390, 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 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)), 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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