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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 27, 2017

Thelma Victoria Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          PAIGE J. GOSSETT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         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, Thelma Victoria Johnson, 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 Child's Insurance Benefits (“CIB”)[2] and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

         SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY GENERALLY

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(5) and § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i), 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), 416.905(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), 416.920(a)(4).[3] 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(B); 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).

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         In February 2012, Johnson filed for CIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2003. Johnson's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on October 3, 2014, at which Johnson, who was represented by Harry F. Smithson, Esquire, appeared and testified. At the hearing, Johnson amended her alleged disability onset date to December 11, 2007. After hearing testimony from Johnson's father and a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on December 19, 2014 finding that Johnson was not disabled prior to May 1, 2012, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. (Tr. 109-27.)

         Johnson was born in 1986 and had not attained the age of twenty-two as of December 11, 2007-the amended alleged onset date. She has a college education and has no prior work experience. (Tr. 228.) Johnson alleged disability due to cerebral palsy, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, hand trembles, muscle spasms in lower back and shoulders, segmental dystonia, restless leg syndrome, and asthma. (Tr. 227.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Johnson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2007-her amended alleged onset date. The ALJ also determined that, prior to the date Johnson attained age twenty-two, Johnson's cerebral palsy, cervical dystonia, asthma, and a learning disability were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that, prior to attaining age twenty-two and through and until Johnson became disabled on May 1, 2012, Johnson 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, prior to attaining age twenty-two and through and until Johnson became disabled on May 1, 2012, Johnson retained the residual functional capacity to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except the claimant is able to perform frequent reaching, handling, fingering and feeling and occasional pushing, pulling and postural activities but no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she must avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants and extreme temperatures; and she has the mental capacity to perform unskilled work.

(Tr. 116.) The ALJ found that Johnson had no past relevant work but that, prior to May 1, 2012, considering Johnson's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Johnson could have performed. Therefore, the ALJ found that Johnson was not disabled at any time prior to March 19, 2008-the date she attained age twenty-two. However, the ALJ found that, beginning on May 1, 2012, the severity of Johnson's impairments was sufficient to meet Listing 11.07D. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Johnson was not disabled prior to May 1, 2012, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision.

         The Appeals Council denied Johnson's request for review on April 18, 2016, making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) This action followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         ISSUES

         Johnson raises the following issues for this judicial review:

I. The ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was disabled on May 1, 2012, but not earlier, was not explained properly pursuant to the Mandatory Discussion Requirements of Social Security Ruling 96-8p ...

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