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Baldwin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 25, 2017

Melissa B. Baldwin, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] 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, Melissa B. Baldwin, 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 her 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 her past relevant work; and
(5) whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from doing any other kind of work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[2] 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 she is unable to return to her past relevant work because of her 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 October 2012, Baldwin applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning December 15, 2006. Baldwin's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on August 7, 2014, at which Baldwin appeared and testified, and was represented by Leeds Barroll, IV, Esquire. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on November 4, 2014 finding that Baldwin was not disabled. (Tr. 12-20.)

         Baldwin was born in 1958 and was forty-seven years old on her disability onset date. (Tr. 20.) She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as an administrative assistant supervisor. (Tr. 155.) Baldwin alleged disability due to spinal, lower back, and neck injuries; scoliosis; fibromyalgia; a herniated disc; and teeth chattering. (Tr. 154.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Baldwin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of December 15, 2006 through her date last insured of December 31, 2011. The ALJ also determined that, through the date last insured, Baldwin's degenerative disc disease was a severe impairment. However, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Baldwin 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, Baldwin retained the residual functional capacity to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). However, claimant could never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, only occasionally climb ramps, climb stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, perform overhead reaching, crawl, and balance, and only frequently reach, handle, and finger. Claimant needed to avoid concentrated exposure [to] vibration and avoid all exposure to hazards and unprotected heights.

(Tr. 15.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Baldwin was capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative assistant supervisor, and that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Baldwin's residual functional capacity. Therefore, the ALJ found that Baldwin was not disabled from the alleged onset date of December 15, 2006 through the date last insured of December 31, 2011.

         The Appeals Council denied Baldwin's request for review on January 20, 2016, 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.


         Baldwin raises the following issues for this judicial review:

I. The ALJ erred in failing to honor the Treating Physician Rule[;]
II. The ALJ erred in finding that myofascial pain is a non-severe impairment[;]
III. The ALJ erred in failing to evaluate symptoms properly pursuant to the two-part test of Craig v. Chater and SSR 96-7p[;]
IV. The ALJ violated the legal standard for evaluating RFC[.]

(Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 9.)


         Although Baldwin raises several issues for this judicial review, the court, like the Commissioner, addresses these issues in order of the sequential process. Further, for the reasons that follow, the court finds that Baldwin has failed to demonstrate that the ALJ's decision is unsupported by substantial evidence or controlled by an error of law.

         A. Severity ...

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