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Knight v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 9, 2016

Carolyn Renee Knight, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Carolyn Renee Knight (“Plaintiff”) filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant, issued in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) D.S.C. (ECF No. 17.)

         The Magistrate Judge recommended reversing the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) in order to allow the Commissioner to reevaluate the evidence in light of Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), which was decided after the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reached her decision. For the reasons set forth below, the court ACCEPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation and, pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), REVERSES the final decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's claim for SSI and remands the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The relevant factual and procedural background of this matter is discussed in the Report and Recommendation. The court concludes, upon its own careful review of the record, that the Magistrate Judge's factual and procedural summation is accurate and incorporates it by reference. The court will only reference herein facts pertinent to the analysis of Plaintiff's claims.

         Plaintiff was born on October 1, 1958, and is presently 57 years old. (ECF No. 10-5 at 3.) On August 4, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2007, due to bipolar disorder, anxiety, migraines, back pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, auditory hallucinations, and learning difficulties. (Id.; ECF No. 10-6 at 6.) Plaintiff's claim was denied on March 16, 2012, and again on reconsideration on June 28, 2012. (ECF No. 10-4 at 2-6, 101-03.) On October 2, 2016, Plaintiff had a hearing before an ALJ, who found on December 13, 2013, that Plaintiff was not disabled under § 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 10-2 at 20, 25.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 4, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. (Id. at 1.)

         In the first two steps of the ALJ's evaluation, see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (outlining five-step evaluation used for disability determinations), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not gainfully employed and that she suffered from a number of severe impairments (ECF No. 10-2 at 13). At step three, the ALJ found that, “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence or pace, [Plaintiff] has moderate difficulties.” (Id. at 14.) In reaching this determination, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff “alleged problems concentrating for long periods. However, she was able to maintain her attention and concentration during psychological interviews. She also testified that she enjoyed playing cards and watching television, which require some amount of concentration.” (Id. (internal citation omitted).) Although the ALJ found that Plaintiff had some severe and moderate impairments, the ALJ concluded that her impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the severity of an impairment in the Listings found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. (ECF No. 10-2 at 13-15.)

         Before proceeding to steps four and five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that Plaintiff had the RFC “to perform medium exertional work” with a number of “non-exertional limitations, ” including that Plaintiff “may perform only unskilled work” and that she was “not able to adapt to more than simple, gradual changes in the workplace.” (Id. at 15.) In reaching this determination, the ALJ considered the opinions of two state agency doctors:

State agency doctors opined that [Plaintiff] could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following limitations: must not be required to perform work involving very fine vision or prolonged visual work; may perform short and simple tasks; and must not be required to perform ongoing interaction with the public. These opinions receive great weight since the objective evidence supports them.

(Id. at 19 (internal citation omitted).) After noting the doctors' opinions, the ALJ proceeded to her RFC finding:

After considering the credible evidence, I find that [Plaintiff] is limited to work at the medium exertional level with the following limitations: no dangerous machinery with exposed moving parts or work requiring fine visual acuity; may perform only unskilled work; must not have direct interaction with the public and only occasional team-type interaction with coworkers; must not be required to make complex, detail[ed] decisions; and not able to adapt to more than simple, gradual changes in the workplace.

(Id.)

         After finding, at step four, that Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience (Id. at 20), the ALJ moved on to step five, which required her to determine whether jobs suited to Plaintiff's ability existed in significant numbers in the national economy. To do so, the ALJ had to account for Plaintiff's limitations. Put another way, she had “[t]o determine the extent to which [Plaintiff's] limitations erode the occupational base of unskilled work at medium level exertion.” (Id.) To make this determination, the ALJ, at the hearing, “asked the vocational expert whether jobs existed in the national economy for an individual with [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC].” (Id.) More specifically, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider

someone who has no exertional limitations[ b]ut because of some vision problems shouldn't work around dangerous machinery with exposed moving parts; and should not be required to perform work that requires fine visual acuity; also would be limited to unskilled work with no direct interaction with the public; only occasional team type interaction with coworkers; should not be required to make complex, detailed decisions; and should not be required to adapt to greater than simple, gradual changes in the work place. Based on that profile, and considering [Plaintiff]'s age, education, and work experience, would there be jobs in the economy at the various exertional levels?

(Id. at 53.) The vocational expert responded that various jobs, in significant numbers, existed for a person matching the description given by the ALJ, such as positions as a housekeeper, dishwasher, and laundry worker. (Id. at 53-55.) The ALJ then asked the vocational expert whether jobs existed for an individual matching the description if it were altered such that “the individual would not be able to concentrate sufficiently to complete even simple tasks on a sustained basis.” (Id. at 55.) The vocational expert responded that no such jobs existed because employers ...


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