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McEachern v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 28, 2016

Shawna Denise Jeffcoat McEachern, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PAIGE J. GOSSETT, Magistrate Judge.

         This social security matter is before the court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.). The plaintiff, Shawna Denise Jeffcoat McEachern, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the defendant, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

         SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY GENERALLY

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) and (d)(5), as well as pursuant to the regulations formulated by the Commissioner, the plaintiff has the burden of proving disability, which is defined as an "inability to do 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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773 (4th Cir. 1973). The regulations require the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to consider, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment;
(3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("the Listings"), and is thus presumptively disabled;
(4) whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work; and
(5) whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from doing any other kind of work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[1] If the ALJ can make a determination that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. Id.

         Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that she is unable to return to her past relevant work because of her impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983).

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         In September 2011, McEachern applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning April 18, 2011. McEachern's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on July 17, 2013, at which McEachern, who was represented by Mario A. Pacella, Esquire, appeared and testified. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on December 6, 2013 finding that McEachern was not disabled. (Tr. 10-20.)

         McEachern was born in 1964 and was forty-six years old on April 11, 2011-her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 17, 144.) She has a college education and has past relevant work experience as a computer aide at an elementary school and a sales assistant. (Tr. 156.) McEachern alleged disability due to bipolar disorder, severe depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal/violent tendencies. (Tr. 155.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that McEachern had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2011-her alleged onset date. The ALJ also determined that McEachern's cardiac dysrhythmias, bipolar I disorder without mention of psychotic behavior, and status post right lateral internal sphicterotomy and posterior fissurectomy were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that McEachern did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). The ALJ further found that McEachern retained the residual functional capacity to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, and humidity, as well as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards such as machinery and heights. The claimant can perform unskilled work but can have no interactions with the public.

(Tr. 14.) The ALJ found that McEachern was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering McEachern's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that McEachern could perform. Therefore, the ALJ found that McEachern was not disabled from April 18, 2011 through the date of her decision.

         The Appeals Council denied McEachern's request for review on February 9, 2105, making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4.) This action followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may review the Commissioner's denial of benefits. However, this review is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's findings "are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court may review only whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). "Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. In reviewing the evidence, the court may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Id . Accordingly, even if the court disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.

         ISSUES

         McEachern raises the following issues for this judicial review:

A. Whether the Administrative Law Judge Erred in Disregarding the Opinion of ...

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