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Harris v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

October 26, 2016

Patrick Joel Harris, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This social security matter is before the court pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.) and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) for final adjudication, with the consent of the parties, of the plaintiff's petition for judicial review. The plaintiff, Patrick Joel Harris, 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 defendant, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) and (d)(5), as well as pursuant to the regulations formulated by the Commissioner, the plaintiff has the burden of proving disability, which is defined as an “inability to do 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 a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773 (4th Cir. 1973). The regulations require the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to consider, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment;
(3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”), and is thus presumptively disabled;
(4) whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and
(5) whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from doing any other kind of work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[1] If the ALJ can make a determination that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. Id.

         Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983).


         In February 2012, Harris applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning March 28, 2007.[2]Harris's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. A video hearing was held on February 25, 2014, at which Harris appeared and testified, and was represented by W. Grady Jordan, Esquire. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on June 20, 2014 finding that Harris was not disabled. (Tr. 13-22.)

         Harris was born in 1973 and was forty years old on the date last insured. (Tr. 20.) He has a high school education with specialized training as a brick mason, and past relevant work experience as an account manager for a rental agency, a chemical operator, a process technician for a bakery, and a glue mixer in a glue factory. (Tr. 189-90.) Harris alleged disability due to lower back problems, heel problems, nerve damage, a back injury, and neurological shaking. (Tr. 188.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Harris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of September 13, 2010 through his date last insured of September 20, 2013. The ALJ also determined that, through the date last insured, Harris's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post surgeries; obesity; degenerative joint disease of the left knee, status post surgery; sleep related breathing disorder; hypertension; and headaches were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Harris did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). The ALJ further found that, through the date last insured, Harris retained the residual functional capacity to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), except he can frequently push or pull with the bilateral upper extremities; can occasionally operate foot controls with his right lower extremity; can frequently operate foot controls with his left lower extremity; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but for no more than four to six steps at a time, and with the assistance of a single handrail; can balance occasionally, including with a hand-held assistive device, which is required for uneven terrain or prolonged ambulation (defined as walking more than 30 minutes at one time); can stoop occasionally; cannot crouch; can occasionally kneel or crawl; must avoid concentrated exposure to excessive vibrations, and environmental irritants (such as fumes, odors, dusts, or gases); must avoid concentrated exposure [to] poorly ventilated areas and to hazards (e.g., dangerous machinery and unprotected heights); can have no exposure to direct sunlight (but this does not include exposure to sunlight going to and from work); and is limited to occupations not performed below bright, flashing lights (does not include normal exposure to neon lights).

(Tr. 16.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Harris was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering Harris's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Harris could have performed. Therefore, the ALJ found that Harris was not disabled from the alleged onset date of September 13, 2010 through the date last insured of September 30, 2013.

         The Appeals Council denied Harris's request for review on September 18, 2015, making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) This action followed.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may review the Commissioner's denial of benefits. However, this review is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's findings “are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court may review only whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. In reviewing the evidence, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. Accordingly, even if the court disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.


         Harris raises the following issues for this judicial review:

A. The ALJ's order fails to make a finding of severity as to the Plaintiff's right lower extremity, as required by SSR 96-3p.
B. The ALJ failed to comply with 20 CFR § 404.1527 in not according adequate weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician.
C. The ALJ failed to apply SSR 00-3p in evaluating the effects of the Plaintiff's extreme obesity, as indicated by his weight of 247 at a height of 5'5” resulting in a BMI of 41.1.
D. While the ALJ briefly summarized Plaintiff's testimony in the decision, he erred in failing to provide specific rationale for rejecting this ...

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