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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

February 13, 2017

Mary L. Johnson, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Mary L. Johnson (“Johnson”), brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), [1] denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Now before this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 15).[2] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Johnson filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 17), and the Commissioner responded to those objections (ECF No. 19). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.


         Johnson applied for DIB in August 2012, and SSI in September 2013, alleging disability beginning on July 6, 2012. Johnson's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On April 1, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Johnson and a vocational expert. During the hearing, Johnson amended her disability onset date to May 1, 2013. On June 16, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Johnson's claim, concluding that she was not disabled from May 1, 2013, through the date of the decision.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Johnson suffered from the following severe impairments: spine disorders, fibromyalgia, torn meniscus (left knee), impingement syndrome of the left shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and neck pain. (ECF No. 10-2 at 15). The ALJ found that, despite Johnson's limitations, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. (ECF No. 10-2 at 25). Johnson sought review of her case by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Johnson's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.


         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence has been defined . . . as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the court's findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Thus, in its review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         However, “[f]rom this it does not follow . . . that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the courts must not abdicate their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the [Commissioner's] findings, and that this conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.


         Johnson submitted a single objection, contending that the magistrate judge erred by finding that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence despite presenting an allegedly improper hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”). Specifically, Johnson argues that the ALJ failed to include Johnson's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace in the hypothetical causing it to be incomplete.

         The ALJ uses five steps to determine a claimant's disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The relevant steps in this case are steps three, four, and five. At step three, if the ALJ determines that a claimant's medically determinable impairments are not sufficient to automatically entitle the claimant to disability status under the Code of Federal Regulations, then the analysis proceeds to the next step. (ECF No. 10-2 at 14-15). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is an individual's ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from the individual's impairments. Id. At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform any past relevant work. Id. If the claimant lacks the RFC for past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five, where the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform any other work. Id.

         In this case, the ALJ determined at step three that “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence or pace, [Johnson] has moderate difficulties, ” but, ultimately, did not have an impairment that automatically entitled her to disability status under the Code of Federal Regulations. Id. at 17. The ALJ's findings concerning Johnson's concentration, persistence, or pace were directly reflected in the RFC assessment the ALJ undertook before proceeding to step four. (Id. at 17) (stating that the “residual functional capacity assessment reflect[ed] the degree of limitation [the ALJ] found in the . . . mental function analysis”).

         In analyzing Johnson's RFC, the ALJ discussed Johnson's mental impairment and depression, in depth. The ALJ noted that the claimant had not required any inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations for stabilization of symptoms, had not sought mental health treatment, nor had she experienced any episodes of decompensation. Id. at 22. Moreover, a mental status examination showed that Johnson was alert and cooperative; her thoughts were logical and coherent; and her speech was normal. Id.

         Notably, in March 2014 the claimant reported that the depression symptoms had only been for the past couple of weeks.[3]Id. Additionally, the ALJ found that Johnson's testimony that she performed job searches on the computer while maintaining that she was disabled in an effort to gain unemployment benefits reflected negatively on her credibility. Id. Paired with the fact that her assertions of limitations were inconsistent with medical evidence of record, the ALJ found Johnson's ...

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