United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division
R. BRYAN HARWELL, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Ellen Andrews Maner, 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 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 applied for DIB on April 27, 2009, alleging disability since June 1, 2004 due to multiple sclerosis, peripheral dysesthesia syndrome, degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder and left knee, carpal tunnel syndrome, and high cholesterol. 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 July 30, 2010. The ALJ thereafter denied plaintiff's claims in a decision issued August 27, 2010. The Appeals Council received as additional evidence medical records from Savannah Neurology Specialists dated April 27, 2011 to September 30, 2011 and stated: "The Administrative Law Judge decided your case through June 30, 2008, the date you were last insured for disability benefits. This new information is about a later time. Therefore, it does not affect the decision about whether you were disabled at the time you were last insured for disability benefits." (ECF No. 7-2, p. 3). The Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review. The ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff then appealed to the federal district court.
The claimant was 62 years old on the date of the hearing. She has a college degree. Her past work experience was as a school teacher. She testified that she was diagnosed with MS in 1995 but that she continued to teach school until her retirement in 1999 and that she subsequently worked as a long-term substitute teacher until 2004.
In her objections filed on June 11, 2014, Plaintiff asserts that "[w]hen taken together, substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's rejection of the evidence regarding Mrs. Maner's multiple impairments" (ECF No. 24, p. 2); the ALJ erred in finding that she was not credible; the ALJ failed to apply SSR 02-01p in evaluating the severity of her obesity; and the Appeals Council erred in failing to evaluate new evidence and/or in failing to follow the treating physician rule.
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 his 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 his 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 last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2008.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of June 1, 2004, through her date last insured of June 30, 2008. (20 CFR 404.1571 et. seq. ).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant has the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis; peripheral dysesthesia syndrome, degenerative disc disease; degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder and left knee; and carpal tunnel syndrome (20 CFR 404.1520 (c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled 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, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant must also be able to sit and stand at will. She could occasionally reach overhead with her right upper extremities and she could frequently handle and finger bilaterally. However, she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and she could have no exposure to workplace hazards. climb ramps and stairs, and could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, ...