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Powell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

October 13, 2016

LEONA POWELL Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Charles B. Day United States Magistrate Judge.

         Leona Powell (“Plaintiff”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Plaintiff's Motion”) (ECF No. 15) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Commissioner's Motion”) (ECF No. 16). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby REVERSES and REMANDS the matter for further clarification.

         I. Procedural Background

         On April 20, 2006, Plaintiff filed for SSI, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2005. R. 130. An administrative hearing was held on March 31, 2008, R. 42-67, and on April 25, 2008, the claim was denied. R. 127. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which concluded on November 18, 2008, that there was no basis for granting the Request for Review. R. 137. Plaintiff did not appeal this decision.

         On February 18, 2011, Plaintiff again filed an application for SSI, as well as an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). R. 141; 275-85. Plaintiff alleged disability due to “lower back problem” and blindness in her left eye. R. 317. A hearing was held on her disability claim on October 25, 2012. R. 68. By decision issued on January 22, 2013, Plaintiff was again denied benefits. R. 161-71. She subsequently requested the Appeals Council to review the decision of the ALJ, and on March 25, 2014, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's Request for Review and remanded the case for further proceedings. R.176-79.

         On September 29, 2014, a supplemental hearing was held, after which, on November 28, 2014, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff's claims. R. 97-126; 14-18. After seeking review by the Appeals Council, the Appeals Council concluded on August 18, 2015, that there was no basis for granting Plaintiff's Request for Review. R. 1-3.

         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) (2015). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. Id. (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 F. App'x 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla.” Id. “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); 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 (citations omitted). The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Id. (citations omitted). 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) (citations omitted).

         The Court shall find a person legally disabled under Title II and Title XVI if he 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) (2012). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the plaintiff is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i) (2012). If he is doing such activity, he is not disabled. If he is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
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) (2012). If he does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, he is not disabled. If he does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
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) (2012). If he does have such impairment, he is disabled. If he does not, proceed to step four.
4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) (2012). If he can perform such ...

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