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Rouse v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

SANDRA Y. ROUSE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that the court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's[1] (the “Commissioner”) decision denying claimant Sandra Y. Rouse's (“Rouse”) application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). For the reasons set forth below, the court rejects the R&R, and reverses and remands the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Rouse filed for SSI and DIB on April 7, 2014, alleging that she became disabled beginning January 27, 2014. Tr. 20. She attributed her inability to work to her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), Attention Deficit Disorder (“ADD”), anxiety attacks, depression, and other debilitating emotional conditions resulting from the verbal, physical, and sexual she experienced both as a child and an adult. Tr. 65, 80, 202-205, 232-237, 278. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 133-137, 145-152. At Rouse's request, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Ronald Sweeda (the “ALJ”) on October 7, 2105, where Rouse and Thomas C. Neil, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) testified. Tr. 17-64, 153-154. On November 3, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Rouse was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Tr. 17-34. Following the Appeals Council's denial of Rouse's request for review on February 17, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-4.

         Rouse then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 1. On July 6, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued an R&R recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 19. Rouse filed objections to the R&R on July 20, 2017, ECF No. 20, and the Commissioner filed a reply on August 2, 2017. ECF No. 22. This matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Rouse's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and only notes a few relevant facts. Rouse was born on February 21, 1963, and was 50 years old on her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 39, 202, 232. She communicates in English and has a high school education, as well as past relevant work experience as a pharmacy technician and cashier. Tr. 40, 279-280, 306.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if Rouse was disabled between January 27, 2014 and October 7, 2105, the date of the hearing. Tr. 17-29. First, the ALJ determined that Rouse had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 22. Second, the ALJ found that Rouse had the following severe impairments: partial rotator cuff tear, degenerative disc disease, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and depression. Tr. 22. At step three, the ALJ found that Rouse's combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in the Agency's Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). Tr. 22-24. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ found that Rouse had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with certain restrictions.[2] Tr. 24-26. The ALJ noted that Rouse can perform simple, repetitive tasks with occasional contact with the general public, and could adjust to occasional changes in her work setting and procedure, but could not work in a team setting or a fast-paced environment. Id. At step four, the ALJ determined that Rouse was not capable of performing any past relevant work as a pharmacy technician and cashier. Tr. 28. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Rouse's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. Tr. 28-29. The ALJ concluded that Rouse was not disabled during the period at issue. Tr. 29.

         II. STANDARD

         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining 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). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner ] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         III. ...

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