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Hughes v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

July 1, 2014

Tracy M. Hughes, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


SHIVA V. HODGES, Magistrate Judge.

This appeal from a denial of social security benefits is before the court for a Report and Recommendation ("Report") pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) (D.S.C.). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The two issues before the court are whether the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and whether she applied the proper legal standards. For the reasons that follow, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings as set forth herein.

I. Relevant Background

A. Procedural History

On September 8, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI in which she alleged her disability began on January 30, 2007. Tr. at 165-71. Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. at 107, 110, 113, 115. On April 19, 2012, Plaintiff had a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William F. Pope. Tr. at 47-106 (Hr'g Tr.). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to April 11, 2011. Tr. at 24. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 15, 2012, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. at 24-46. Because Plaintiff's date last insured was prior to the amended alleged onset date, the ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's DIB claim and addressed only her SSI claim. Tr. at 24. Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. Tr. at 1-3. Thereafter, Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in a complaint filed on April 25, 2013. [Entry #1].

B. Plaintiff's Background[1]

Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. at 50. She completed high school and some college courses. Tr. at 51. Her past relevant work ("PRW") was as a cashier, certified nursing assistant, construction laborer, sales representative, realtor, cook, quality control for molding operation, and property manager. Tr. at 100. She alleges she is unable to work because of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal problems, osteoarthritis, bone spurs in her neck, and the residual effects of a right knee injury. Tr. at 58-59. Plaintiff testified that she had ten family members die in a period of four years prior to 2007 and that she was kidnapped, raped, and almost murdered in 2006. Tr. at 82, 86.

C. The ALJ's Findings

In his decision dated June 15, 2012, the ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 11, 2011, the amended alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post posterior lumbar interbody fusion at the L5-S1 level; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with spondylosis at the C5-C6 level; residual effects of a right knee injury; osteoarthritis; mild bone spurs of the bilateral hips; obesity; major depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except for the following limitations: only simple, routine tasks; a supervised environment; no required interaction with the public or "team"-type interaction with co-workers; no lifting or carrying over 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; no standing and/or walking over two hours in an eight-hour workday; only occasional balancing and climbing of stairs or ramps; no crouching, kneeling, crawling; or climbing of ladders or scaffolds; no foot pedal controls with the right lower extremity; avoidance of unprotected heights, vibration, and machinery with exposed, hazardous, moving parts; and an environment reasonably free from dust, fumes, gases, odors, and extremes of temperature and humidity.
5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on March 18, 1965 and was 41 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to a younger individual age 45-49 (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
8. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has transferrable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 30, 2007, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

Tr. at 26-46.

II. Discussion

Plaintiff alleges the Commissioner erred for the following reasons:

1) the ALJ erred in implying Plaintiff should amend her onset date where it was clear that Plaintiff did not understand the legal effect of doing so;
2) the ALJ erred in failing to allow Plaintiff to testify fully regarding matters on which the ALJ relied in denying Plaintiff's claim;
3) the ALJ failed to properly consider the side effects of Plaintiff's medications;
4) the vocational expert ("VE") erred in capriciously reducing the number of available jobs by 50% in an attempt to reflect only those positions that did not require interaction with the general public; and
5) the ALJ's questions to the VE included a vague, undefined term.

The Commissioner counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings and that the ALJ committed no legal error in his decision.

A. Legal Framework

1. The Commissioner's Determination-of-Disability Process

The Act provides that disability benefits shall be available to those persons insured for benefits, who are not of retirement age, who properly apply, and who are under a "disability." 42 U.S.C. § ...

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