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Middleton v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

August 5, 2016

Taneshia Laverne Middleton, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Jacquelyn D. Austin United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[1] Plaintiff 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 Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), denying Plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2]For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In September 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on May 1, 2011. [R. 167-73, 174-79.] The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“the Administration”). [R. 93-97, 101-04]. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and on July 30, 2013, ALJ Thomas G. Henderson conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. [R. 24-43]. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by attorney Robertson H. Wendt. [R. 12.]

         The ALJ issued a decision on August 20, 2013, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). [R. 12-19.] At Step 1, [3] the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2015, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. [R. 14, Findings 1 & 2.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, headaches, right shoulder arthrosis, and reduced far visual acuity. [R. 14, Finding 3.] The ALJ also noted a non-severe impairment of glaucoma. [Id.] At Step 3, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [R. 15, Finding 4.] The ALJ expressly considered Listings 1.02, 2.00, 4.00, 9.00, and 12.00. [Id.]

         Before addressing Step 4, Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she can occasionally bend, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; she can never climb ladders or scaffolds; she can occasionally reach to the front, laterally, and overhead with her right upper extremity; must avoid moderate exposure to work hazards; and occasional far vision.

[R. 15, Finding 5.] Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a retail sales clerk, babysitter, housekeeper, and janitor. [R. 18, Finding 6.] However, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [R. 18, Finding 10.] Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from May 1, 2011, through the date of the decision. [R. 19, Finding 11.]

         Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision [R. 7-8], but the Council declined review. [R. 1-6.] Plaintiff proceeding pro se, filed this action for judicial review on January 22, 2015. [Doc. 1.]

         THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

         Plaintiff does not allege any error on the part of the ALJ. Instead, Plaintiff provides a brief which is rather unintelligible and appears to claim some sort of “conspiratorial violations and denials of equal protection of the law” as a basis for challenging the ALJ's decision. [Doc. 41 at 2.] For example, Plaintiff argues, the “Administration for years as confirmed by the records filed, conspiratorially denied plaintiff her disability rights under or pursuant to sections 216(i), 223(d) and 1614(a)(3)(A) and (20 CFR 404.1509 and 416.909 as established herein this entirety by law and facts in derogation or injuries of plaintiff's rights in their life.” [Id. at 1.] Further, Plaintiff asks that the “attorney or legal fees for legal work” be paid directly to Edward B. Saunders pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for his legal work; and that ten percent of gross be paid directly to her Aunt Yvonne Pamela Levine for her overall support. [Id. at 3-4.]

         The Commissioner, on the other hand, contends the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ reasonably accounted for all of Plaintiff's credibly established limitations in the RFC assessment and hypothetical question to the VE; thus, the ALJ's decision should be affirmed. [Doc. 43 at 7.]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Liberal Construction of Pro Se Complaint

         Plaintiff brought this action pro se, which requires the Court to liberally construe her pleadings. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S.97, 106 (1976); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (per curiam); Loe v. Armistead, 582 F.2d 1291, 1295 (4th Cir. 1978); Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Haines, 404 U.S. at 520. Even under this less stringent standard, however, a pro se complaint is still subject to summary dismissal. Id. at 520-21. The mandated liberal construction means only that if the court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so. Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999). A court may not construct the plaintiff's legal arguments for her. Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417-18 (7th Cir. 1993). Nor should a court “conjure up questions never squarely presented.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).

         Court's Scope of Review in Social Security Actions

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (citing Woolridge v. Celebrezze, 214 F.Supp. 686, 687 (S.D. W.Va. 1963)) (“Substantial evidence, it has been held, is 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.'”).

         Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ), ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision). Thus, it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner so long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012); Laws, 368 F.2d at 642; Snyder v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 518, 520 (4th Cir. 1962).

         The reviewing court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review, however, if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980); see also Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994). Where the Commissioner's decision “is in clear disregard of the overwhelming weight of the evidence, Congress has empowered the courts to modify or reverse the [Commissioner's] decision ‘with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.'” Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1158 (4th Cir. 1971) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Remand is unnecessary where “the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose.” Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).

         The court may remand a case to the Commissioner for a rehearing under sentence four or sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Sargent v. Sullivan, 941 F.2d 1207 (4th Cir. 1991) (unpublished table decision). To remand under sentence four, the reviewing court must find either that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the Commissioner incorrectly applied the law relevant to the disability claim. See, e.g., Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1090-91 (11th Cir. 1996) (holding remand was appropriate where the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record of the claimant's residual functional capacity); Brehem v. Harris, 621 F.2d 688, 690 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding remand was appropriate where record was insufficient to affirm but was also insufficient for court to find the claimant disabled). Where the court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner's decision, a remand under sentence four is usually the proper course to allow the Commissioner to explain the basis for the decision or for additional investigation. See Radford v. Comm'r, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985);see also Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1181-82 (4th Cir. 1986) (remanding case where decision of ALJ contained “a gap in its reasoning” because ALJ did not say he was discounting testimony or why); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984) (remanding case where neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council indicated the weight given to relevant evidence). On remand under sentence four, the ALJ ...


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