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Haselden v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

November 8, 2016



          Bristow Marchant United States Magistrate Judge

         The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein she was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), (D.S.C.).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)[1] in September 2006, alleging disability since August 1, 2001 due to Hepatitis C, headaches, seizures, and a learning disability. (R.pp. 101-109, 133). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, as well as by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) after a hearing. (R.pp. 8-43). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, following which Plaintiff filed suit in this United States District Court. Haselden v. Astrue, C.A. No. 9:10-545. The decision of the Commissioner was thereafter reversed and remanded by this Court, following which the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and sent the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings. (R.pp. 423-432). The ALJ then held a second hearing on October 8, 2011, following which he issued a decision on January 27, 2012, again finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying Plaintiff's claims. (R.pp. 362-407).

         Following Appeals Council review upholding this decision, Plaintiff again filed suit in United States District Court. Haselden v. Colvin, C. A. No. 9:12-872. The decision of the Commissioner was thereafter again reversed and remanded by this Court for a determination of whether Plaintiff met the requirements for disability of Listing 12.05C.[2] The Appeals Counsel then sent the matter to a different ALJ for further proceedings, following which another hearing was held on July 25, 2014. (R.pp. 611-647, 694). This new ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued August 28, 2014. (R.pp. 599-610). The Appeals Counsel denied Plaintiff's appeal of this decision, thereby making the August 2014 decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 587-592).

         Plaintiff then filed this action in this United States District Court, asserting that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded for an outright award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.

         Scope of review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision.

         Substantial evidence has been 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 refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.” [emphasis added].

Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)); see also, Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th cir. 2008)[Noting that the substantial evidence standard is even “less demanding than the preponderance of the evidence standard”].

         The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the [Commissioner's] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).


         A review of the record shows that Plaintiff, who was forty-three (43) years old on August 1, 2001 (when she alleges she became disabled), has a marginal education[3] with past relevant work experience as a dock worker, security guard, and cleaner. (R.pp. 101, 146, 199-204). In order to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for at least twelve (12) consecutive months. After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[4] of borderline intelligence and a seizure disorder, she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at all exertional levels, limited to work that requires only simple repetitive tasks without ongoing interaction with the general public and no exposure to work hazards. (R.pp. 602, 605). The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a hand packer with these limitations as well as other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and that Plaintiff is therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 608-610).

         Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the ALJ erred by performing a faulty listing analysis, and by improperly considering and evaluating the subjective testimony as to the extent of Plaintiff's limitations. Plaintiff further argues that the additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Counsel was not properly considered. After careful review and consideration of the record in this case and the arguments from the parties, the undersigned is constrained to agree with the Plaintiff that the decision must be reversed. Even so, as is set forth hereinbelow, Plaintiff is not entitled to a remand for an award of benefits at this time.

         Plaintiff's applications have proceeded through a convoluted claim decision history, which includes (as previously noted) two previous remands from this Court back to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Plaintiff's applications were originally denied at the administrative level, both initially and upon reconsideration, as well as by an ALJ after a hearing and by the Appeals Council on review. However, on appeal to this Court the undersigned recommended reversal of the decision with remand for the purpose of obtaining vocational expert testimony to establish whether Plaintiff could perform other work with her non-exertional limitations, a recommendation that was adopted (as modified) by the District Judge. (R.pp. 424-429). Following a second hearing on her applications, Plaintiff's claims were again denied both by the ALJ as well as by the Appeals Council. Plaintiff again appealed to this Court, but after a review of the record and decision the undersigned this time concluded that the decision was supported by substantial evidence in the case record and recommended that the decision be affirmed. (R.pp. 675-691). However, the District Judge concluded on de novo review that the ALJ had erred in evaluating whether Plaintiff met the Paragraph C requirements of Listing 12.05, and had failed to adequately explain his consideration of evidence that might support a finding of deficits in adaptive functioning in the Listing 12.05C analysis, and therefore again reversed and remanded the administrative decision. (R.pp. 667-674).

         As a result of that remand order, Plaintiff has now gone through the administrative process a third time, this time before a different ALJ, who after a hearing again concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled for purposes of either DIB or SSI, a decision which the Appeals Council has again upheld. As before, Plaintiff has appealed the denial of her applications to this United States District Court. In her appeal, Plaintiff continues to fault the ALJ's listing analysis, while also arguing that the Appeals Council did not properly consider new evidence that was submitted to it as part of Plaintiff's appeal of the ALJ's decision.[5] While the undersigned certainly agrees with the Plaintiff, as well as the Defendant, that it is time to bring some finality to these applications, the undersigned is bound by Fourth Circuit precedent with respect to how such claims are to be reviewed. These precedents unfortunately require yet another reversal with a remand of Plaintiff's applications, all as is more fully set forth below.

         New Evidence Submitted to ...

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