United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division
TRINA M. MABUS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
THOMAS E. ROGERS, III, Magistrate Judge.
This is an action brought pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a "final decision" of the Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The only issues before the Court are whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards have been applied. This case is before the Court pursuant to Local Rule 83.VII.02, D.S.C., concerning the disposition of Social Security cases in this District on consent of the parties. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on March 13, 2007, alleging that she became disabled on March 5, 2007 (Tr. 23, 131-132, 498). Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 76-83). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 102-103). On September 16, 2009, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified (Tr. 41-74). After the hearing, on November 17, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 20-40). On January 6, 2011, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ decision, rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff then appealed this decision to this Court, which issued a decision remanding the case to the Agency for further proceedings (Tr. 603-631). Pursuant to this Court's decision, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff's claim to the ALJ, instructing him to hold a new hearing and issue a new decision (Tr. 632-634). The ALJ held a new hearing on April 22, 2013, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified (Tr. 529-572). After the hearing, on July 3, 2013, the ALJ issued a new decision finding that Plaintiff was disabled as of January 27, 2010, but not before then (Tr. 495-528). On October 29, 2013, the Appeals Council issued a notice declining to consider Plaintiff's statement of exceptions to the ALJ's decision because it was untimely, and holding that the ALJ's July 2013 decision was the final decision of the Commissioner (Tr. 475-478). Plaintiff filed this action on November 6, 2013, in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. This case is ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
B. Plaintiff's Background and Medical History
1. Introductory Facts
Plaintiff was born on March 22, 1973 and was 33 years old at the time of the alleged onset. (Tr. 34). Plaintiff has at least a high school and past relevant work experience as a nurse's aide, cleaner, dietary aide, sandwich maker, and waitress. (Tr. 515).
2. Medical Records and Opinions
The ALJ provided a detailed summary of the medical evidence, the various physicians' opinions, as well as Plaintiff's testimony, which the Court adopts to the extent that it is consistent with this decision. Additional factual details will be added where necessary to address the issues raised by the parties.
C. The Administrative Proceedings
1. The ALJ's Decision
In the decision of July 3, 2013, the ALJ found the following:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2008.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1571, et seq. and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. Since the alleged onset of disability, March 5, 2007, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; diabetes mellitus, with diabetic neuropathy; disorders of the knees; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; history of posttraumatic stress disorder; morbid obesity. Beginning on the established onset date of disability, January 27, 2010, the claimant additionally had fibromyalgia (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. Since the alleged onset of disability, March 5, 2007, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that prior to January 27, 2010, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), with restrictions that require: simple, routine, repetitive tasks; no ongoing interaction with the general public; a low stress environment defined as an environment where there is no requirement to meet a rigid, inflexible production schedule, adapt to frequent changes in the workplace, or make complex decisions; no lifting or carrying over 10 pounds occasionally or less than 10 pounds frequently; no standing or walking over an aggregate of 2 hours in an eight-hour workday; no more than occasional stooping, twisting, balancing, kneeling, crouching, and climbing of stairs or ramps; no crawling or climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; no required exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, vibration, or uneven terrain.
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that beginning on January 27, 2010, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), with restrictions that require: simple, routine, repetitive tasks; no ongoing interaction with the general public; a low stress environment, defined as an environment where there is no requirement to meet a rigid, inflexible production schedule, adapt to frequent changes in the workplace, or make complex decisions; no lifting or carrying over 10 pounds occasionally or less than 10 pounds frequently; no standing or walking over an aggregate of 2 hours in an eight-hour workday; no more than occasional stooping, twisting, balancing, kneeling, crouching, and climbing of stairs or ramps; no crawling or climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; no required exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, vibration, or uneven terrain; the need to be off-task 15% of the workday and miss 3 or more of days of work per month.
7. Since March 5, 2007, the claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565 and 416.965).
8. Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was a younger individual age 18-44. The claimant's age category has not changed since the established disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563 and 416.963).
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564 and 416.964).
10. Prior to January 27, 2010, 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 transferable job skills. Beginning on January 27, 2010, the claimant has not been able to transfer job skills to other occupations (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P. Appendix 2).
11. Prior to January 27, 2010, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 C.F.R. 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
12. Beginning January 27, 2010, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960, and 416.966).
13. The claimant was not disabled prior to January 27, 2010, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
14. The claimant was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through March 31, 2008, the date last insured (20 C.F.R. 315(a) and 404.320(b)).
The Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in his decision, and that reversal and an award of benefits are appropriate in this case. Specifically, Plaintiff believes that the ALJ erred (1) in his evaluation of Plaintiff's Listing level mental impairment; (2) in his application of the treating physician rule; (3) in his evaluation of Plaintiff's credibility; and (4) in his formulation of a residual functional capacity for the time period preceding January 27, 2010 which Plaintiff argues is not supported by substantial evidence. (Plaintiff's brief hereinafter "Pl. Br."). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and legally correct, and should thus, be affirmed.
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. § 423(a). Section 423(d)(1)(A) defines disability 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 at least 12 consecutive months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, regulations promulgated under the Act have reduced the statutory definition of disability to a series of five sequential questions. See, e.g., Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983) (discussing considerations and noting "need for efficiency" in considering disability claims). An examiner must consider the following: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"); (2) whether he has a severe impairment; (3) whether that impairment meets or equals an impairment included in the Listings; (4) whether such impairment prevents claimant from performing PRW; and (5) whether the impairment prevents him from doing SGA. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. These considerations are sometimes referred to as the "five steps" of the Commissioner's disability analysis. If a decision regarding disability may be made at any step, no further inquiry is necessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (providing that if Commissioner can find claimant disabled or not disabled at a step, Commissioner makes determination and does not go on to the next step).
A claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Act if he can return to PRW as it is customarily performed in the economy or as the claimant actually performed the work. See 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, § 404.1520(a), (b); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 82-62 (1982). The claimant bears the burden of establishing his inability to work within the meaning of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (5).
Once an individual has made a prima facie showing of disability by establishing the inability to return to PRW, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to come forward with evidence that claimant can perform alternative work and that such work exists in the regional economy. To satisfy that burden, the Commissioner may obtain testimony from a VE demonstrating the existence of jobs available in the national economy that claimant can perform despite the existence of impairments that prevent the return to PRW. Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir.2002). If the Commissioner satisfies that burden, the claimant must then establish that he is unable to perform other work. ...