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Stevenson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

June 11, 2016

Laurine Stevenson, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          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

          KEVIN F. McDONALD, Magistrate Judge.

         This 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 636(b)(1)(B).

         The 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 Security Act.

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Prior 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.

         In 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. § 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. § 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. §§ 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 § 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. § 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. § 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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. § 404.1520(g)).

         The 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.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         The 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. § 423(a). "Disability" is defined in 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) 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.

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Social

         Security 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. § 404.1520. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         A 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. § 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).

         Once an 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.

         The 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 "substantial evidence."

Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (citation omitted).

         Thus, 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).

         EVIDENCE PRESENTED

         The 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).

         The 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. 647).

         On 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).

         On 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. 593-646).

         The plaintiff was hospitalized from October 1-3, 2007, for chronic pancreatitis with ongoing nausea, some vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain (Tr. 1390-93).

         On 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).

         On February 7, 2008, the plaintiff was hospitalized briefly for profuse vomiting and diarrhea (Tr. 1127-1228).

         On 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).

         On 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).

         On 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).

         On 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. 570-72, 587-92).

         On 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).

         On 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 ...


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