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Collins v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

September 11, 2014

Joann Collins, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

R. BRYAN HARWELL, District Judge.

The plaintiff, Joann Collins, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act.

The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. Section 405(g) of that Act provides: "[T]he findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance." Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964); see, e.g., Daniel v. Gardner, 404 F.2d 889 (4th Cir. 1968); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966); Tyler v. Weinberger, 409 F.Supp. 776 (E.D. Va. 1976). This standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the court's findings for those of the Commissioner. See, e.g., Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971); Hicks v. Gardner, 393 F.2d 299 (4th Cir. 1968). "[T]he court [must] 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). As noted by Judge Sobeloff in Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278 (4th Cir. 1969), "[f]rom this it does not follow, however, that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative action." Id. at 279. "[T]he courts must not abdicate their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the [Commissioner's] findings, and that his conclusion is rational." Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on June 19, 2009, alleging disability since May 30, 2009 due to anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, depression, and degenerative disc disease of the spine. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. The plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held on August 15, 2011. At the hearing, the claimant (through counsel) amended her alleged onset date to August 12, 2009. The ALJ thereafter denied plaintiff's claims in a decision issued on September 23, 2011. The Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review and the ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff then appealed to the federal district court.

The claimant is a 55-year-old female[1] who has a high school education. Her past work experience includes employment as a spinner and a hospital cleaner.

Under the Social Security Act, the plaintiff's eligibility for the benefits she is seeking hinges on whether she "is under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D). The term "disability" is defined as the "inability to engage in 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..." Id. at § 423(d)(1)(A). The burden is on the claimant to establish such disability. Preston v. Heckler, 769 F.2d 988, 990 n.* (4th Cir. 1985). A claimant may establish a prima facie case of disability based solely upon medical evidence by demonstrating that her impairments meet or equal the medical criteria set forth in Appendix 1 of Subpart P. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

If such a showing is not possible, a claimant may also establish a prima facie case of disability by proving that she could not perform her customary occupation as the result of physical or mental impairments. Taylor v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 664 (4th Cir. 1975). Because this approach is premised on the claimant's inability to resolve the question solely on medical considerations, it then becomes necessary to consider the medical evidence in conjunction with certain "vocational factors." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b). These factors include the individual's (1) "residual functional capacity, " id. at § 404.1561; (2) age, id. at § 404.1563; (3) education, id. at § 404.1564; (4) work experience, id. at § 404.1565; and (5) the existence of work "in significant numbers in the national economy" that the individual can perform, id. at § 404.1561. If the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity leads to the conclusion that she can no longer perform her previous work, it must be determined whether the claimant can do some other type of work, taking into account remaining vocational factors. Id. at § 404.1561. The interrelation between these vocational factors is governed by Appendix 2 of Subpart P. Thus, according to the sequence of evaluation suggested by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is currently gainfully employed, (2) whether she suffers from some physical or mental impairment, (3) whether that impairment meets or equals the criteria of Appendix 1, (4) whether, if those criteria are not met, the impairment prevents her from returning to her previous work, and (5) whether the impairment prevents her from performing some other available work.

The ALJ made the following findings in this case:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 12, 2009, the amended alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1471, et seq. ).

3. The claimant had the following severe impairments: anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, depression, degenerative disc disease of the spine (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).

4. 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 and 404.1526).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant can stand, walk and sit 6 hours of an 8 hour workday. She can lift/carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. She would need a sit/stand option, at will. The claimant must never climb ladders, ropes or scaffold. She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no ongoing public interaction and only occasional contact with co-workers and low stress; defined as occasional change in work setting and decision making.

6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).

7. The claimant was born on July 31, 1959 and was 49 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged ...


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