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Stephens v. Colvin

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

October 17, 2016

Sheila Stephens, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Kevin F. McDonald United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case is before the court for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civ. 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

         The plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on September 27, 2011, alleging that she became unable to work on August 23, 2011. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On August 28, 2012, the plaintiff requested a hearing. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”), before whom the plaintiff and William W. Stewart, Ph.D., an impartial vocational expert, appeared at a hearing on March 12, 2014, considered the case de novo and, on April 4, 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 July 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, 2016.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 23, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq).
(3) The claimant had the following severe impairments: obesity, status post open reduction internal fixation of the right ankle, left femur fracture status post IM rod placement, left ulna and radial fracture status post open reduction internal fixation (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
(4) The claimant also has the following non-severe impairment: mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)(20 C.F.R. 404.1521 and 416.921).
(5) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals 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).
(6) After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). In particular, the claimant can lift or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can stand or walk for approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and sit for approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. However, the claimant is limited to frequent pushing and pulling with her left upper extremity and right lower extremity and must not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She is limited to frequent balancing, occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, and she must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.
(7) The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a cake decorator/caterer helper, customer service representative, sales associate, cashier, cash office clerk. This work did not require the performance fo work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
(8) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 23, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)).

         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, ...


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