United States District Court, D. South Carolina
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
BRISTOW MARCHANT, Magistrate Judge.
The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein she was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), (D.S.C.).
Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on February 2, 2010, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2007 due to depression, arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, acid reflux, low potassium, osteoarthritis, atopic dermatitis, breathing problems, hot flashes, muscle spasms and itching all over. (R.pp. 115-116, 117-123, 148, 153). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on November 18, 2011. (R.pp. 23-59). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued January 20, 2012. (R.pp. 11-22). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-3).
Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded for further consideration, or for an outright award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.
Scope of review
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano , 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano , 611 F.2d 980, 982-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision. Substantial evidence has been defined as:
evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence." [emphasis added].
Hays , 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze , 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)).
The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws , 368 F.2d at 642. "[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the [Commissioner's] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Blalock v. Richardson , 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).
A review of the record shows that Plaintiff, who was forty-four (44) years old when she alleges she became disabled, has a tenth grade education with past relevant work experience as a home health care giver, cashier, and clothes sorter. (R.pp. 21, 31, 34-35, 117). In order to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for at least twelve (12) consecutive months. After a review of the evidence and testimony in this case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the "severe" impairments of arthritis, fibromyalgia, depression and anxiety, thereby rendering her unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a restricted range of sedentary work,  and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 14, 18, 21-22).
Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the ALJ erred by improperly weighing and evaluating the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Robert Phillips concerning the extent and limiting effects of her mental impairment, and by improperly finding that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform work on a regular and continuing basis in light of her documented mental impairment. However, after careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds and concludes for the reasons set forth hereinbelow that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. Laws , 368 F.2d 640 [Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion"].
As noted by the ALJ in her decision, Plaintiff's primary physician was Dr. Sandy Jones with the Celia Saxon Health Center. On December 6, 2007, Dr. Jones found Plaintiff's mental status to be "normal". (R.p. 260). Dr. Jones continued to see Plaintiff thereafter at regular intervals through the summer of 2008, with Plaintiff's mental status on all of these visits always being noted as "normal". There is no indication in any of these medical records that Plaintiff was having any problems with depression or anxiety. (R.pp. 254-259). Indeed, it was not until September 17, 2008 that Dr. Jones' office notes reflect for the first time that Plaintiff complained about "feeling depressed a lot recently". Plaintiff told Dr. Jones that she could not pinpoint exactly what was causing her depression; rather, she just worried about everyday things. However, Dr. Jones again noted Plaintiff's mental status as being normal (alert and oriented X 3). She started Plaintiff on Zoloft. (R.p. 252). Plaintiff returned to see Dr. Jones on December 4, 2008 for a variety of complaints. Dr. Jones' office notes do not reflect that Plaintiff mentioned any problems with depression at that time, and she again noted Plaintiff's mental status as being "normal". Her Zoloft prescription was continued, with Dr. Jones also indicating that she would try to get Plaintiff on Cymbalta per a prescription assistance program. (R.p. 248). There is nothing to indicate a disabling mental condition in these medical records. See Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 589-590 (4th Cir. 1996)[noting importance of treating physician opinions]; see also Trenary v. Bowen , 898 F.2d 1361, 1364 (8th Cir. 1990) [Courts should properly focus not on a claimant's diagnosis, but on the claimant's actual functional limitations].
In addition to Dr. Jones' treatment records, the ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had a consultative disability examination performed by Dr. Mitchell Hegquist on February 18, 2009 on referral from the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Plaintiff complained to Dr. Hegquist of various medical problems of a physical nature, as well as depression, and Dr. Hegquist noted the Plaintiff was being seen by her primary care physician (Dr. Jones) for her complaints every two to three months. With respect to her mental condition, Plaintiff told Dr. Hegquist that she had begun having depression approximately three years previous (even though Dr. Jones' medical records had not noted this complaint until September 2008, only five months earlier), and that her current medications helped "sometimes" but made her drowsy. However, she had never been evaluated by a mental health specialist or hospitalized for a mental health disease, and on examination Dr. Hegquist found Plaintiff to be alert and oriented X 3, her memory was grossly intact, and her thought processes, behavior, and intelligence level were all within normal limits. See Richardson v Perales , 402, U.S. 389, 408 (1971)[assessment of ...