United States District Court, D. South Carolina
KAYMANI D. WEST, Magistrate Judge.
This social security matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.) for final adjudication, with the consent of the parties, of Plaintiff's petition for judicial review. Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision, as discussed herein.
I. Relevant Background
A. Procedural History
On October 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, alleging a disability onset date of July 10, 2010. Tr. 143-44. After being denied both initially and on reconsideration, Tr. 127-30, on November 8, 2011, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Tr. 125. The ALJ conducted a hearing on October 24, 2012, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a Vocational Expert ("VE"). Tr. 40-92. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 17, 2012. Tr. 21-33. On January 30, 2013, Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the decision, Tr. 6-11, but the Appeals Council declined, Tr. 1-5, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in a Complaint filed on March 20, 2013. ECF No. 1.
B. Plaintiff's Background
Born in 1973, Plaintiff was 39 years old at the time of the October 24, 2012 hearing before the ALJ. Tr. 45, 143. Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed two years of college. Tr. 45, 179. Plaintiff has past relevant work ("PRW") as a grocery store price integrity coordinator and as a fast-food restaurant cashier. Tr. 161, 179. Her last day of work was July 10, 2010, which is also her alleged onset-of-disability date. Tr. 178. Plaintiff alleges she is unable to work because of her medical conditions of aortic valve replacement, meralgia paresthetica (knees to hips in both legs), and depression. Id.
C. The Administrative Proceedings
1. Plaintiff's Testimony
Plaintiff testified that she was married and lived in a house with her husband and five-year-old daughter. Tr. 44-45. Their sole source of income is from her husband's job. Tr. 45. Plaintiff testified that she is five feet, four inches tall and weighed 295 pounds, which was her normal weight. Tr. 46. Plaintiff stated that she had a driver's license and was able to drive to doctors' appointments, to her daughter's school, and to the grocery store. Tr. 47.
Plaintiff testified that she started working at Bi-Lo grocery store in 1991, and her last position with Bi-Lo was as a scan coordinator, which involved scanning and changing price tags. Tr. 49-50. Plaintiff testified that as a scan coordinator she was "constantly" on her feet, she had "prolonged" sitting of one hour, and she might have to lift up to 20 pounds. Tr. 51-52.
Plaintiff testified that her worst problem was numbness in both legs from her knees to her hips. Tr. 53. She also stated her lower back hurt. Id. Plaintiff testified that the problems with her legs started in 2007 after hysterectomy surgery. Id. Doctors told her to see a chiropractor for a possible pinched nerve, and Plaintiff testified that it got "a little better, and then [she] had a car wreck in November of '08, and it's not been the same since." Tr. 54. Plaintiff stated she continues to see a chiropractor, but she is not getting any better. Id. Plaintiff testified that on an average day her pain level was at eight on a scale of zero-to-ten. Id. Plaintiff stated that her pain was aggravated by constant walking, standing, or moving. Tr. 55. Plaintiff stated that to relieve the pain she takes medication,  reclines with her legs elevated, and uses heating pads. Id. Plaintiff stated she can sit upright for about 15 minutes, and walk for about 10 minutes before it becomes too painful. Tr. 55-56. Plaintiff stated that she could stand still for 15 minutes. Tr. 56. Plaintiff testified that she has gained weight since her heart surgery because she is unable to exercise without excessive pain and weight gain is a side effect of some of her medications. Tr. 57-58.
Plaintiff testified that her husband does most of the cooking and that she spends most of her day in her recliner with her legs elevated. Tr. 60-61. Plaintiff stated that she does "minimum housework" and does not sweep, vacuum, mop, or do yard work. Tr. 61. Plaintiff testified she is able to take care of her personal needs of bathing and dressing. Tr. 62. Plaintiff stated that although she wears a CPAP machine at night, she is unable to sleep because of the pain in her legs. Id. She "might" take a nap in the morning after her daughter leaves because the Norco makes her "groggy." Id.
Plaintiff testified that she attends the church is across the street from her house twice a week. Tr. 63-64. Plaintiff stated that since she stopped working she went on a family trip to Disney, but they stopped every hour on the way so she "could get out and move around." Tr. 64. Plaintiff testified that they did not go to the parks, and she stayed in the room unless they went out to eat. Tr. 64-65. Plaintiff testified that she also went on a Disney cruise to the Caribbean and "towards the end [she] stayed in the room the whole time." Tr. 66, 81.
Plaintiff testified that she has recovered from her heart issues, but takes metoprolol twice a day to regulate her heart rate. Tr. 67. She stated that she still has some problems breathing so she can't walk and go up and down stairs. Id. She also testified that her legs hurt when she climbs stairs and she has to "make sure that there's a handle or something that I can hold on to so that I don't fall off from losing my balance from it." Tr. 68. Plaintiff stated that because of the nerve pain in her legs she is unable to squat or crouch. Id.
Plaintiff testified that she sees a psychiatrist and psychologist for her emotional problems, and she has good days and bad days but tries to keep her spirits up for her daughter's sake. Tr. 70. Plaintiff testified that she is in a pain management program and the medication has alleviated the pain in her back and legs some, but not completely. Tr. 72.
Plaintiff testified that she has a laptop computer that she uses for about 15 minutes to check her emails. Tr. 72-73. She also watches television and listens to music, but does not read much because she "can't concentrate." Tr. 73. Plaintiff testified that if she could work she "would definitely work." Id.
In response to questions from the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she usually gets up in the morning around 7:00 to make sure her daughter is dressed for school. Tr. 75. Her husband takes their daughter to school and picks her up two days a week; Plaintiff picks her daughter up from school three days a week. Tr. 75-76. Plaintiff stated that she watches television about four hours a day. Tr. 76. She stated that usually her husband does the grocery shopping, but she will shop if she needs something. Id. Plaintiff stated that she does not use an assistive device but she had "looked at getting a cane." Tr. 77.
2. VE Testimony
Dr. Benson Hecker testified as VE that, according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"), Plaintiff's prior work at Bi-Lo as a market pricer was light with an SVP of two and her work as inventory control clerk was light with an SVP of five. Tr. 85. VE Hecker opined that those skills would be industry-specific and therefore not transferable. Id.
The ALJ asked the VE to assume a hypothetical individual 39 years old, with a "high school education and slightly better, work history as documented and testified to, " with the following exertional limitations: "lift, carry, push, pull 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; sit about six out of eight hours in a work day, stand or walk at least two out of eight hours in a work day." Tr. 85. The individual "should never climb a ladder, rope or scaffold but could occasionally perform all other postural activities." Tr. 86. The individual "should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery." Id. The ALJ asked if such an individual could perform Plaintiff's past work, either as she performed it or as performed in the national economy. Id. The VE testified that such an individual could perform the job as market pricer as defined in DOT 209.587-034, but not the inventory control work. Id. The VE identified additional available unskilled light work the individual could perform including: packer, DOT 753.687-038, nationally 670, 0000, South Carolina 9800; assembler, DOT 706.684-022, nationally 229, 000, South Carolina 2700; and grader, DOT 529.687-186, nationally 38, 000, no South Carolina data. Tr. 87. The ALJ modified the hypothetical to include "some mental limitations but in spite of these she could concentrate, persist, and work at pace to do simple, routine, repetitive tasks, [ ] at SVP levels of 1 to 2, for extended periods, [ ] two-hour periods in an eight-hour day; she could interact occasionally with the public and interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors in this type of stable routine setting." Tr. 88. The VE testified that such an individual could perform the past work of market pricer, as well as the additional jobs he identified. Id.
The ALJ posed another hypothetical as follows:
[A]n individual the same age, education, work experience from hypothetical 1, that [ ] this individual could lift, carry, push, pull 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; sit, stand or walk about six hours each in an eight-hour work day; at this time she should never climb a ladder, rope or scaffold but could frequently balance and kneel, occasionally perform all other postural activities; there'd be some environmental limitations, again she should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, avoid concentrated exposures to extreme cold, extreme heat, and avoid concentrated exposure to humidity; and the mental limitations from hypothetical 1A.
Tr. 88. The ALJ asked if Plaintiff's past work as market pricer and the additional jobs identified by the VE would be available, and the VE responded in the affirmative. Tr. 89.
Plaintiff's attorney asked the effect on an individual's employability "if an individual is restricted to sitting less than two hours in an eight-hour day and stand, walk less than two hours in an eight-hour day...." Tr. 89. The VE testified that restriction "would preclude past relevant work, it would preclude the jobs I have identified or any other work." Id. Plaintiff's attorney asked how it would affect the VE's answers "if the individual could lift less than 10 pounds occasionally, never more than 10 pounds." Tr. 90. The VE testified that it would reduce the ability to perform light work as it is defined as lifting 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, so none of the jobs would be available. Id. In response to Plaintiff's attorney the VE also testified that ...