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Earle v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 15, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


BRISTOW MARCHANT, Magistrate Judge.

The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein she was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.).

Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on June 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning November 7, 2010, due to a dislocated disc in her back that causes her pain "all over". (R.pp. 10, 91, 115, 121). Plaintiff's alleged onset date of disability was later amended to September 30, 2012. (R.pp. 10, 21). Plaintiff's claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on October 29, 2013. (R.pp. 19-42). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claim in a decision issued January 17, 2014. (R.pp. 10-18). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-4).

Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or, alternatively, for further consideration. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.

Scope of review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision. Substantial evidence has been defined as:

evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence." [emphasis added].

Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)).

The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court 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).


A review of the record shows that Plaintiff, who was fifty-five (55) years old when she alleges she became disabled, has a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a data entry clerk. (R.pp. 17, 23, 25, 91, 116). In order to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience, and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.

After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the "severe" impairment[1] of degenerative disc disease (DDD) (R.p. 12), she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work[2] with limitations of lifting/carrying 10 pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; standing and sitting up to six hours (each) in an eight-hour workday; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; unlimited balancing; occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and no overhead reaching bilaterally (with unlimited reaching in other directions). (R.p. 14). Then, at step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing her past relevant work as a data entry clerk both as it is performed actually and as generally performed in the economy. (R.p. 17-18).

Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the ALJ erred because she failed to give appropriate weight to Plaintiff's treating source providers and failed to make the necessary credibility findings. However, after a careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds and concludes for the reasons set forth hereinbelow that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642 [Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion"].

Medical Records

On May 20, 2010 (several months before Plaintiff's original, and more than two years prior to her amended, alleged onset date of disability), x-rays of Plaintiff's left shoulder showed soft tissue calcification compatible with calcific tendonitis, but with no fracture, dislocation, or destructive process. (R.p. 190). That same day, x-rays of Plaintiff's cervical spine showed DDD and spondylosis primarily at C5, C6, and C7. (R.p. 191). Thereafter, on June 10, 2010, Dr. Thomas D. Armsey, II, an orthopedist at Midlands Orthopaedics, examined Plaintiff for complaints of bilateral shoulder, neck, and low back pain without radiation to her lower extremities or persistent numbness or weakness. Although Plaintiff complained of "daily" low back pain, she had "full" muscle strength in her cervical spine. (R.pp. 161-163). Dr. T. Daniel Silvester, a radiologist, noted that a cervical spine MRI study taken that day indicated there was no significant spinal canal or neural foraminal stenosis, and no spinal cord or spinal canal nerve root impingement. (R.p. 188). Dr. Armsey stated that Plaintiff had only "mild" disc space narrowing. (R.p. 162).

On June 24, 2010, Plaintiff complained to Dr. Armsey of numbness and tingling in her bilateral upper extremities. He noted that the MRI of her cervical spine revealed C3-C7 mild posterior osteophyte complex without central or foraminal stenosis, no disc herniations, and no bone edema. (R.pp. 163-165). An EMG of Plaintiff's bilateral upper extremities on July 14, 2010, revealed only very mild right carpal tunnel syndrome, no sign of left carpal tunnel syndrome, and no evidence of left or right cervical radiculopathy. (R.pp. 166-167). On July 27, 2010, Dr. Armsey noted that Plaintiff was still complaining of pain that he could not explain, and that her EMG and other diagnostic studies showed no acute pathology that would explain her pain. (R.pp. 168-169).

On August 10, 2010, Plaintiff complained to Dr. Armsey about cervical, low back, and bilateral shoulder pain. Examination of her lumbar spine revealed only mild paraspinal tenderness, full strength to flexion/extension/rotation/lateral bending, no midline tenderness, and negative straight leg raising test bilaterally. Plaintiff's bilateral lower extremities were neurovascularly intact, her gait was non-antalgic, and there was no atrophy of her bilateral lower extremities. Examination of Plaintiff's cervical spine revealed only mild paraspinal tenderness, with no lesions, erythema, midline tenderness, crepitus, or masses. There was also no atrophy of her bilateral upper extremities, her muscle strength was full, her deep tendon reflexes were full and equal, and her sensation was intact. Dr. Armsey noted that Plaintiff was showing improvement with her recent walking program, and he prescribed a physical therapy program. His assessment was chronic low back pain, obesity, and cervical spine pain-spondylosis. (R.pp. 170-171).

Plaintiff again complained of daily cervical, bilateral shoulder, and low back pain on September 3, 2010. Dr. Armsey noted that x-rays of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed DDD at L3-L4 with end plate sclerosis, and mild DDD at L4-L5 and L5-S1. He recommended an MRI to rule out L4 nerve root entrapment. (R.pp. 172-173). A September 2010 MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed mild DDD of her lumbar spine without any significant compressive sequelae. (R.p. 186). On September 17, 2010, Dr. Armsey noted that the MRI showed mild central canal stenosis and bi-foraminal stenosis at L3-L4, and left-sided disc bulge without stenosis. He planed to administer a diagnostic and therapeutic lumbar epidural steroidal injection (LESI). (R.p. 175).

Dr. Armsey administered a LESI on September 28, 2010. (R.p. 176). On October 5, 2010, Plaintiff reported improvement in her pain and function. Dr. Armsey noted that Plaintiff's neck and back improved with the injection as well as formal physical therapy, that she had started a walking program for weight loss and aerobic fitness, and was motivated to improve her core strength. He opined that, from a ...

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