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Pruitt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

December 21, 2017

Betty Pruitt, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PAIGE J. GOSSETT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This social security matter is before the court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.). The plaintiff, Betty Pruitt, 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.

         SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY GENERALLY

          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).

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         In November 2012, Pruitt applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning August 30, 2008. Pruitt's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on December 12, 2014, at which Pruitt appeared and testified, and was represented by Jason L. Sturkie, Esquire. During the hearing, Pruitt amended her onset date to September 22, 2012. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on February 5, 2015 finding that Pruitt was not disabled from December 22, 2012[3] through the date last insured of December 31, 2013. (Tr. 26-33.)

         Pruitt was born in 1959 and was fifty-three years old on her amended disability onset date. (Tr. 32.) She has a high school education and has past relevant work experience as an aircraft inspector. (Tr. 174-75.) Pruitt alleged disability due to depression, arthritis, high blood pressure, a fractured foot, an open hand wound, a pin in her left hand, and alcoholism. (Tr. 173.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Pruitt had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date through her date last insured of December 31, 2013. The ALJ also determined that, through the date last insured, Pruitt's left dorsal wrist injury; and left thumb fracture, status-post open reduction internal fixation, were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Pruitt 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, Pruitt retained the residual functional capacity to

perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except that the use of hand controls can be performed frequently on the left. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but can occasionally crawl. The claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs, and can constantly balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She can occasionally handle and frequently finger with the dominant left hand. She can occasionally be exposed to unprotected heights.

(Tr. 30.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Pruitt was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering Pruitt's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Pruitt could have performed. Therefore, the ALJ found that Pruitt was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the date last insured of December 31, 2013.

         The Appeals Council granted Pruitt's request for review on June 28, 2016. On August 18, 2016 the Appeals Council issued a decision adopting all of the ALJ's findings and conclusions except that it found Pruitt not disabled from September 22, 2012-Pruitt's correct amended alleged onset date-through the date last insured. (Tr. 4-7.) 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. Chafer, 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 ...


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