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Gethers v. Colvin

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

September 17, 2014

Brenda Lee Gethers, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

R. BRYAN HARWELL, District Judge.

The plaintiff, Brenda Lee Gethers, 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 denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under 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 filed her application for disability benefits on June 23, 2011, alleging disability as of August 27, 2010, due to a motor vehicle accident and back and foot problems. 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 January 25, 2012. The ALJ thereafter denied plaintiff's claims in a decision issued on February 14, 2012. Plaintiff filed an action in this Court for review of the decision. The ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff has now appealed to the federal court.

The claimant was 47 years old on the alleged onset date. She completed the eleventh grade. Her past work experience includes employment as a pharmacy technician, assistant manager at a gas station, and assistant manager at a grocery store.

Under the Social Security Act, the plaintiff's eligibility for benefits hinges on whether he "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, 2011.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 27, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq. ).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; degenerative joint disease; and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). * * *

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals 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).

* * *

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and lesser amounts frequently, sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day and stand and walk occasionally. Additionally, she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can only perform other postural activities ...


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