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Tobey v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

November 30, 2017

BRENDA K. TOBEY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Bristow Marchant, United States Magistrate Judge Charleston, South Carolina

         The Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action, pro se, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein she was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), (D.S.C.).

         In a decision issued October 28, 2005, Plaintiff was found to be entitled to Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) based on her being unable to meet the demands of work at any exertional level due to her bipolar disorder and leg and foot problems. Plaintiff thereafter received periodic disability reviews, and on April 8, 2011, it was determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of April 1, 2011. (R.p. 40). This decision was confirmed upon reconsideration, following which Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on March 26, 2014. (R.pp. 25-34). In a decision issued September 2, 2014, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had experienced medical improvement[1] such that she was no longer disabled as of April 1, 2011. (R.pp. 11-19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-3).

         Plaintiff then filed this action, pro se, in this United States District Court. In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to her mental impairment, diabetes, foot problems, and problems with the discs in her back, and asks that this Court review the decision in her case “with an open mind”. The Commissioner contends that the decision that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of April 1, 2011 is supported by substantial evidence, and that the decision should be affirmed.

         Scope of review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision. Substantial evidence has been 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 refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.” [emphasis added].

Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)); see also, Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th cir. 2008)[Noting that the substantial evidence standard is even “less demanding than the preponderance of the evidence standard”].

         The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the [Commissioner's] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence." Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff was forty-three (43) years old on April 1, 2011, the date as of which it was determined her medical condition had improved such that she was no longer disabled. She has at least a high school education. (R.pp. 18, 35). In order to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for at least twelve (12) consecutive months. After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[2] of a bi-polar condition, depression, cocaine dependence, a ganglion cyst of the right foot, degenerative joint disease of the knees, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, as of April 1, 2011 she nevertheless had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform unskilled sedentary work, [3] and was therefore no longer entitled to disability benefits as of that date. (R.pp. 13, 15).

         Plaintiff does not set forth any specific arguments for why the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed, other than to point out some of her medical problems as well as that she is “a recovering drug addict” who is “trying to clean up” because her father wanted her to.[4]Even so, in light of Plaintiff's pro se status, the undersigned has reviewed the record and the decision of the ALJ to determine if there is substantial evidence to support the decision, and after careful review and consideration of the record and arguments presented, the undersigned finds for the reasons set forth here in below that there is substantial evidence to support the conclusion of the ALJ that Plaintiff was not disabled as that term is defined in the Social Security Act as of April 1, 2011. Laws, 368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640 [Substantial evidence is “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion”]. Therefore, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

         When determining whether an individual who has previously been found to be disabled continues to be disabled, an ALJ is to use an eight step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594. The ALJ is to consider 1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; 2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listing; 3) whether the claimant has experienced “medical improvement”, and, if so, 4) whether the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work. If there is no medical improvement, or if the medical improvement is found to be unrelated to the claimant's ability to work (and if no statutory exceptions apply), then 5) the claimant's disability generally continues. However, if there has been medical improvement related to the claimant's ability to work, the ALJ must then determine 6) whether all of the claimant's current impairments, in combination, are “severe”; 7) if the claimant is able to perform past relevant work; and, if not, 8) whether he or she can perform other work that exists in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1) - (8). See also (R.pp. 11-12).

         A review of the decision shows that the ALJ correctly followed this analytical framework in reaching his decision. Th ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2011, next determined that Plaintiff's medical impairments (considered both singularly and in combination) did not meet or medically equal a listing[5], and then found that Plaintiff had experienced medical improvement as of April 1, 2011 and that these improvements related to Plaintiff's ability to work. (R.pp. 13-15). The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff did continue to suffer from several “severe” impairments (as previously noted), but that although Plaintiff could not perform any previous past relevant work with these impairments, [6] as of April 1, 2011 she was able to perform unskilled sedentary work with the ability to sit for six hours in an eight hour day, and stand and walk ...


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