United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division
Laurine Stevenson, Plaintiff, represented by Paul Townsend
McChesney, McChesney and McChesney.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant,
represented by Marshall Prince, U.S. Attorneys Office.
REPORT OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE
F. McDONALD, Magistrate Judge.
case is before the court for a report and recommendation
pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) (D.S.C.),
concerning the disposition of Social Security cases in this
District, and Title 28, United States Code, Section
plaintiff brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of
the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. 405(g)) to
obtain judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
to this application for disability insurance benefits
("DIB"), the claimant filed applications on April
29, 2009, and November 2, 2010. These applications were
denied at the initial level, and there was no appeal. The
plaintiff filed the current DIB application on October 4,
2011, alleging that she became unable to work on March 15,
2007. The application was denied initially and on
reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On
June 18, 2012, the plaintiff requested a hearing. The
administrative law judge ("ALJ"), before whom the
plaintiff and Leanna L. Hollenbeck, an impartial vocational
expert, appeared at a hearing on October 24, 2013, considered
the case de novo and, on February 3, 2014, found
that the plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in
the Social Security Act, as amended. The ALJ's finding
became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's
request for review on March 23, 2015. The plaintiff then
filed this action for judicial review.
making the determination that the plaintiff is not entitled
to benefits, the Commissioner has adopted the following
findings of the ALJ:
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2011.
(2) The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful
activity during the period from her alleged onset date of
March 15, 2007, through her date last insured of December 31,
2011 (20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1571 et seq ).
(3) Through the date last insured, the claimant has the
following severe impairments: pancreatitis, systemic lupus
erythematosus, and a depressive disorder with anxiety (20
C.F.R. Â§ 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 the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20
C.F.R. Â§Â§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that through the date last insured, the
claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform
sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R Â§ 404.1567(a) except
with simple routine repetitive tasks and frequent but not
constant handling and fingering.
(6) Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to
perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on August 3, 1963, and was 48 years
old, which is defined as a younger individual age 45-49, on
the date last insured (20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is
able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1564).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational
Rules support a finding that the claimant is "not
disabled, " whether or not claimant has transferable job
skills ( See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Through the date last insured, 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 claimant
could have performed (20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in
the Social Security Act, from March 15, 2007, the alleged
onset date, through December 31, 2011, the date last insured
(20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1520(g)).
only issues before the court are whether proper legal
standards were applied and whether the final decision of the
Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.
Social Security 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. Â§ 423(a).
"Disability" is defined in 42 U.S.C. Â§ 423(d)(1)(A)
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
facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability
claims, the Social
Act has by regulation reduced the statutory definition of
"disability" to a series of five sequential
questions. An examiner must consider whether the claimant (1)
is engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) has a severe
impairment, (3) has an impairment that equals an illness
contained in the Social Security Administration's
Official Listings of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Part 4,
Subpart P, App. 1, (4) has an impairment that prevents past
relevant work, and (5) has an impairment that prevents him
from doing substantial gainful employment. 20 C.F.R. Â§
404.1520. If an individual is found not disabled at any step,
further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. Â§
plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act if he
can return to past relevant work as it is customarily
performed in the economy or as the claimant actually
performed the work. SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386, at *3. The
plaintiff bears the burden of establishing his inability to
work within the meaning of the Act. 42 U.S.C. Â§ 423(d)(5). He
must make a prima facie showing of disability by showing he
is unable to return to his past relevant work. Grant v.
Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983).
individual has established an inability to return to his past
relevant work, the burden is on the Commissioner to come
forward with evidence that the plaintiff can perform
alternative work and that such work exists in the regional
economy. The Commissioner may carry the burden of
demonstrating the existence of jobs available in the national
economy that the plaintiff can perform despite the existence
of impairments that prevent the return to past relevant work
by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Id.
scope of judicial review by the federal courts in disability
cases is narrowly tailored to determine whether the findings
of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and
whether the correct law was applied. Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
Consequently, the Act precludes a de novo review of
the evidence and requires the court to uphold the
Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by
substantial evidence. See Pyles v. Bowen, 849 F.2d
846, 848 (4th Cir. 1988) (citing Smith v. Schweiker,
795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986)). The phrase
"supported by substantial evidence" is 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 a refusal to
direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.
1966) (citation omitted).
it is the duty of this court to give careful scrutiny to the
whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for
the Commissioner's findings and that the conclusion is
rational. Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543
(4th Cir. 1964). If there is substantial evidence to support
the decision of the Commissioner, that decision must be
affirmed. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775
(4th Cir. 1972).
plaintiff was 43 years old on her alleged disability onset
date (March 15, 2007) and 48 years old her date last insured
(December 31, 2011). She has a high school education and past
relevant work experience as a sales attendant, hand packager,
and cook/baker's helper (Tr. 22, 49).
plaintiff has a history of treatment for chronic pancreatitis
(inflammation of the pancreas) (Tr. 316-767, 1104-44,
1378-1427). In July 2006, eight months before her alleged
disability onset date, the plaintiff was hospitalized for
abdominal pain due to acute gastritis (inflammation of the
lining of the stomach) and probably secondary to recurrent
pancreatitis (Tr. 312-767). The attending physician,
Darlington Hart, M.D., indicated that the plaintiff was known
to him and had a history of "questionable scrum
negative' lupus" and of recurrent pancreatitis for
which she had been admitted to the hospital multiple times
(Tr. 662). A CT scan of the abdomen in July 2006 was
unremarkable with no evidence of acute pancreatitis (Tr.
711). Upon discharge, Dr. Hart formed an impression of
"acute gastritis with abdominal pain probably secondary
to recurrent pancreatitis but so far there is no evidence of
pancreatitis based on her labs and her CAT scan" (Tr.
March 20, 2007, Randolph L. Rodrigue, M.D., of Digestive
Disease Associates of York County, P.A., evaluated the
plaintiff for vomiting and abdominal pain. He noted that she
had been treated in the emergency room recently, but had
chronic problems for years. Dr. Rodrigue prescribed Praceas
and Nexium and advised that the plaintiff try to get off of
steroids (Tr. 1384). Dr. Rodrigue reevaluated the plaintiff
on July 25, 2007. He indicated the plaintiff had abdominal
pain and pancreatitis of unknown cause for a number of years,
but had begun having diarrhea after she eats as well. The
plaintiff's stool studies were negative. Dr. Rodrigue
noted that the plaintiff weighed 182 pounds. He diagnosed
probable post-cholecystectomy diarrhea and prescribed
Questram and Aciphex. He also continued the plaintiff's
prescription for Ultram (Tr. 1386). On July 26, 2007, Dr.
Rodrigue indicated that the plaintiff had chronic abdominal
pain and carried a diagnosis of lupus treated with prednisone
chronically. He indicated that the prednisone aggravated her
GI problems and he would like her to go off of the prednisone
from a long-term health standpoint (Tr. 1389). A CT scan of
the abdomen in July 2007 was normal (Tr. 1113-14).
August 15, 2007, Dr. Rodrigue indicated that the plaintiff
continued to have chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea. A 72
hour stool collection was ordered (Tr. 1385). On August 29,
2007, the plaintiff had a cystoscopy with transurethral
collagen installation for stress urinary incontinence (Tr.
plaintiff was hospitalized from October 1-3, 2007, for
chronic pancreatitis with ongoing nausea, some vomiting,
diarrhea, and abdominal pain (Tr. 1390-93).
December 29, 2007, Dr. Rodrigue evaluated the plaintiff for
continued abdominal pain with occasional diarrhea. He
prescribed Vicodin and continued the plaintiff's other
medications (Tr. 1394). A CT scan of the abdomen on January
7, 2008, showed no acute abdominal abnormalities (Tr. 1124).
February 7, 2008, the plaintiff was hospitalized briefly for
profuse vomiting and diarrhea (Tr. 1127-1228).
February 28, 2008, Dr. Rodrigue evaluated the plaintiff for
diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gas. He felt that some of the
plaintiff's symptoms were from lactose intolerance and
that she needed to better follow a lactose free diet (Tr.
1398). On June 7, 2008, the plaintiff complained of diffuse
abdominal pain and Dr. Rodrigue started her on a trial of
Bentyl (Tr. 1399-1400).
August 19, 2008, the plaintiff continued to have diffuse
abdominal pain. Her symptoms included abdominal bloating,
abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, lactose intolerance,
nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. Dr. Rodrigue ordered
diagnostic tests (Tr. 1403-04).
September 8, 2008, due to continued abdominal pain and
nausea, Dr. Rodrigue advised hospitalization (Tr. 1405-06).
The plaintiff was hospitalized from September 9-11, 2008, for
abdominal pain. It was noted that the plaintiff had chronic
pancreatitis and had mild pancreatitis on endoscopic
ultrasound. The plaintiff reported intermittent nausea and
vomiting with intractable diarrhea. Dr. Rodrigue indicated
that the plaintiff had a history of chronic abdominal pain
for more than 20 years with a questionable history of
pancreatitis (Tr. 578). Dr. Rodrigue noted that the plaintiff
was a poor historian and prone to exaggeration, and,
therefore, he wanted to see just how much diarrhea the
plaintiff actually had on observation in the hospital (Tr.
579). Dr. Rodrigue put the plaintiff on a lactose free diet,
and she had no diarrhea in the hospital, which he felt
confirmed his suspicion that lactose intolerance was causing
the diarrhea (Tr. 574). He noted that a CT scan in August had
been negative, and two obstruction series, an upper GI, and a
small bowel follow-through had all been negative. The
plaintiff did vomit while in the hospital, which Dr. Rodrigue
felt caused by "Addisonian-type withdrawal "related
to her being on chronic low-dose steroids. The plaintiff was
placed on 20 milligrams of prednisone per day and was
counseled that she could not stop steroids suddenly. Dr.
Rodrigue noted that he did not think the plaintiff was aware
of this and seemed to have been very noncompliant with her
steroids at home based upon his questioning (Tr. 575). She
was stabilized and discharged with prescriptions for Lortab
and prednisone (Tr. 574-86).
September 13, 2008, the plaintiff was treated in the
emergency room for moderate to severe abdominal pain with
nausea and loss of appetite. She was discharged with
prescriptions for Levsin, Phenergan, and tramadol (Tr.
February 17, 2009, the plaintiff was treated in the emergency
room for severe increased abdominal pain, nausea, and
dizziness. She appeared to be in mild distress. It was noted
that she had a history of pancreatitis, anxiety, and systemic
lupus erythematosus. The plaintiff was given IV Dilaudid and
Phenergan (Tr. 554-68).
February 23, 2009, the plaintiff was treated in the emergency
room for weakness, syncope, and collapse. The cause of her
fainting was undetermined and she was advised to ...