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Spencer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

December 19, 2017

BRITTANY SPENCER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BRISTOW MARCHANT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to42 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.).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on March 2, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 28, 2010[1] due to physical limitations related to her hands and learning disabilities. (R.pp. 100, 104-105, 140-141, 353-354). Plaintiff s claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on December 18, 2012.[2] (R.pp. 60-129). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff s claim in a decision issued February 12, 2013. (R.pp. 161-174). However, the Appeals Council remanded the case on April 22, 2014, based on the finding in the decision that Plaintiff could only "occasionally" perform fine or gross manipulation, while the jobs provided by the Vocational Expert (VE) and cited by the ALJ as being jobs that Plaintiff could perform required fingering and handling "constantly". (R.pp. 179-181).

         On January 2, 2015, a second hearing was held, following which an unfavorable decision was issued on March 20, 2015. (R.pp. 89-152, 183-219). However, the Appeals Council issued another remand on May 28, 2015, again based on the ALJ limiting Plaintiff s bilateral handling to "occasional", while the jobs provided by the VE required handling "frequently" or "constantly". (R.pp. 221-222). The ALJ was directed to obtain clarifying VE testimony, and on October 16, 2015, the ALJ held another hearing. The ALJ thereafter issued another unfavorable decision on March 7, 2016. (R.pp. 10-48, 130-152). This time, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff s 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 in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded for further consideration, or for an outright award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.

         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

         A review of the record shows that Plaintiff, who was only twenty-four (24)[3] years old when she alleges she became disabled, has a limited education[4] with past relevant work experience as a puncher, cashier, and box handler. (R.pp. 46, 62, 82, 98-99, 101, 117-120, 138-139, 143-145). 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 this case, the ALJ determined that although Plaintiff does suffer from the "severe" impairments[5] of bilateral brachysyndactyly of the middle, ring, and small fingers on the right and ring and small fingers on the left; diabetes mellitus type II; and a learning disability, thereby rendering her unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work[6] except that the bilateral use of hand controls to push and pull repetitively is limited to occasional within the exertional level; the Plaintiff could never climb ropes; occasionally climb ladders, scaffolds and crawl; frequently climb ramps and stairs; constantly balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; handle bilaterally on a frequent basis within her exertional level; finger bilaterally on a frequent basis with thumb and index finger and occasionally with the middle, ring, and small fingers; and occasionally be exposed to hazards associated with unprotected dangerous machinery or unprotected heights, while otherwise being capable of being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks in a low-stress environment (defined as free of fast-paced or team-dependent production requirements) involving the application of commonsense understanding to carry out detailed, but uninvolved written or oral instructions with few concrete variables in or from standardized situations. (R.pp. 23-24). The ALJ then found that there were jobs that Plaintiff could perform with these limitations, and that she was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.p. 48).

         Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the Commissioner erred by upholding the ALJ's decision since it was not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to adequately assist a pro se Plaintiff. However, after careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds and concludes for the reasons set forth hereinbelow that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. 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"].

         I.

         Plaintiffs primary complaint centers around the ALJ's change from his March 20, 2015 decision, where he found that Plaintiff could only perform handling occasionally, to his March 7, 2016 decision, where he found that she could perform handling frequently. (R.pp. 23, 196). Plaintiff notes that while the VE at the third (and most recent) hearing testified that there were jobs that Plaintiff could perform with the limitations set out by the ALJ, the VE testified that there were no jobs that Plaintiff could perform if she was limited to handling occasionally. (R.pp. 147-148).

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not demonstrate that her ability to handle had changed since his last decision and, therefore, the same RFC restriction for handling ought to have remained in place. Accordingly, Plaintiff contends that this error entitles her ...


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