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Oliver v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

May 6, 2014



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), [2] alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009 due to irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, sleep apnea, diabetes and high blood pressure, glaucoma, hyperthyroidism, and heart problems. (R.pp. 173, 175, 222). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration.[3] Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on November 9, 2011. (R.pp. 37-82). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged disability onset date to September 1, 2009. (R.p. 52). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued December 2, 2011. (R.pp. 12-36). 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-five (45) years old on her amended disability onset date, has an eighth grade education with past relevant work experience as a home health aid, nursery school attendant, and bus driver. (R.pp. 12, 26, 43-44, 231). 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[4] of insulin dependant diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism secondary to Grave's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and recurrent headache, 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 light work, [5] and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 18, 20, 26-27).

Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments were non-severe, by failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's headaches, and by performing an improper credibility analysis of Plaintiff's subjective testimony as to the extent of her pain and limitations. After careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned is constrained to agree with the Plaintiff that the ALJ did not properly evaluate and consider the evidence relating to her mental impairments, thereby necessitating a reversal and remand of the decision for this purpose.

As noted, Plaintiff's application cited anxiety and depression as one of the bases for her disability, and in his decision the ALJ acknowledged that Plaintiff has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's mental condition was a "non-severe" impairment. (R.p. 18). An impairment is non-severe if it is a slight abnormality which has only a minimal effect on a claimant and which would not be expected to interfere with the claimant's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 1521(a). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairments did not cause more than a minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities. (R.p. 19). In making this finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had no more than a mild limitation in her activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence or pace, citing to various activities Plaintiff engaged in, including household chores, driving and shopping, attending church, and that she is able to handle money and keep up with television shows and movies. (R.p. 19). In making these findings, the ALJ found that there was a "complete absence of any subsequent medical records showing complaints of or treatment for" symptoms related to her mental impairments, further stated that the "medical evidence of record is devoid of any findings regarding restrictions due to [Plaintiff's mental impairments] and they have thus been determined to be a nonsevere impairment", and concluded that these impairments "have not resulted in any limitations on the [Plaintiff's] ability to do basic work activities....". (R.pp. 18, 23).

There is not substantial evidence in the case record to support these statements and findings. Laws , 368 F.2d 640 [Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion"]. Contrary to the ALJ's finding that the record was "devoid" of any findings regarding restrictions due to Plaintiff's mental condition, and that there was a "complete absence of any subsequent[6] medical records showing complaints of or treatment for... symptoms" related to her mental diagnosis, the medical record contains numerous entries and findings ...

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