United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
KOWANNA M. CHASE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
CHARLES B. DAY, Magistrate Judge.
Kowana Chase ("Plaintiff") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's claims for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiff's Motion") (ECF No. 17) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's Motion") (ECF No. 19). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, DENIES Defendant's Motion, and REMANDS this matter to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
I. Procedural Background
Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on March 7, 2007 and claimed disability from the onset date of August 1, 2005 through the date last insured of December 31, 2009, as a result of the late effects of musculoskeketal connective tissue injury, status post cervical fusion, and obesity. R. at 13-14, 17, 137-40, 168. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim on first review on July 12, 2007 and upon reconsideration on January 10, 2008. R. at 97-99, 104-05. Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held on December 15, 2009 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. at 43-60. On January 6, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB payments. R. at 79-88. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which vacated and remanded Plaintiff's claim for review and a new hearing. R. at 91-93. A second hearing was held before an ALJ on September 13, 2011, and the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim on October 19, 2011. R. at 10-26, 61-75. On March 15, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision final and appealable. R. at 1-4.
II. Standard of Review
On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ "with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); s ee also Russell v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 440 F.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) ("It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.").
The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court "determine the weight of the evidence" or "substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. If the ALJ's factual finding, however, "was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, " then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
The Court shall find a person legally disabled if she is unable "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) (2014). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a sequential, five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a plaintiff meets this definition:
Step 1) Determine whether the plaintiff is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is doing such activity, she is not disabled. If she is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
Step 2) Determine whether the plaintiff has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If she does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled. If she does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
Step 3) Determine whether the plaintiff has an impairment that "meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If she does have such impairment, she is disabled. If she does not, proceed to step four.
Step 4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the "residual functional capacity" to perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If she can perform such work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, proceed to step five.
Step 5) Determine whether the plaintiff can perform other work, considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If she can perform other work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, she is disabled.
Plaintiff has the burden to prove that she is disabled at steps one through four, and Defendant has the burden to prove that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) ...