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Horne v. Berryhill

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

April 24, 2017

Scotty M. Horne, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, 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 Civil 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).[1] 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 his 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 March 21, 2012, alleging that he became unable to work on January 15, 2011. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On August 14, 2012, the plaintiff requested a hearing. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”), before whom the plaintiff, his attorney, and William W. Stewart, Ph.D., an impartial vocational expert, appeared at a hearing on May 8, 2014, considered the case de novo and, on June 27, 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 December 16, 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 January 15, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: stable ascending aortic aneurism; chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), complicated by tobacco abuse that is in early remission; depression; anxiety; and rule out personality disorder (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
(4) 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).
(5) 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) except he is limited to simple, routine tasks that do not require ongoing interaction with the general public or close “team type” interaction with co-workers, do not require reading or writing above a second grade level, and takes place in a low stress environment (defined as not required to make complex decisions at the workplace, not required to meet a rigid production schedule, or to adapt to frequent changes in the workplace) and the claimant is limited to non-confrontational supervisory interaction. Additionally, the claimant is limited to no more than occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, climbing of stairs and ramps, crawling, and balancing, and no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should also have no concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, or extremes of humidity, heat, or cold.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on November 26, 1964, and was 46 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. § 404.1564).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational Rules support a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. § 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 15, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         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(a)(4). If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.

         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, that decision must be affirmed. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         EVIDENCE PRESENTED

         Evidence Before the ALJ

         The plaintiff was 46 years old on the alleged disability onset date (January 15, 2011) and 49 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision (June 27, 2014). He has past relevant work experience as a transmission mechanic (Tr. 34).

         On April 10, 2011, the plaintiff was hospitalized for an evaluation of his aortic aneurysm. A CT angiogram showed an aortic aneurysm measuring 47 mm with no evidence of dissection (Tr. 267-81).

         On July 11, 2011, George Butler, M.D., of Pageland Family Medicine evaluated the plaintiff for followup of chronic medical problems including anxiety and an aortic aneurysm. The plaintiff reported that he had been out of his medications for about a week because they were stolen. The plaintiff admitted to problems staying calm and reported problems with maintaining relationships and outbursts. Dr. Butler discussed medications with the plaintiff and diagnosed aortic aneurysm, currently asymptomatic; anxiety, insomnia, and gastroesophageal ...


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