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Addison v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 14, 2018

John Lewis Addison, Jr., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable Bruce H. Hendricks United States District Judge.

         This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision, which denied Plaintiff John Lewis Addison, Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”) claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The record includes the report and recommendation (“Report”) of United States Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West, which was made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) (D.S.C.).

         In her Report, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report, and the Commissioner filed a response to those objections. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (providing that a party may object, in writing, to a Magistrate Judge's Report within 14 days after being served a copy). For the reasons stated below, the Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's Report and affirms the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits.


         Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB on October 3, 2014, alleging disability beginning on October 2, 2014, due to the following medical conditions: neuropathy, diabetes, hypertension, knee pain, and post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on December 2, 2015, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert (“VE”) Robert E. Brabham, Jr. The ALJ issued a decision dated January 13, 2016, denying Plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff requested review of his decision, and on June 2, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a notice denying Plaintiff's request for review. On July 5, 2016, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff it was “setting aside [its] earlier action to consider additional information.” (Tr. at 1-7.) Upon consideration, the Appeals Council “found no reason under [its] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision.” (Tr. at 1.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision on September 2, 2016.

         Plaintiff was born in 1967 and was 47 years old on his alleged onset date of October 2, 2014. Plaintiff completed high school and has past relevant work as a logistics associate for an automotive manufacturing business. Plaintiff's duties as a logistics associate included loading and unloading trucks with a forklift.

         Plaintiff also served in the United States Military for the following dates: September 27, 1985-July 28, 1989 (Marine Corps); November 1, 2002-October 11, 2003 (Army); and January 29, 2007-July 5, 2008 (Army). On November 28, 2011, Plaintiff received a disability Rating Decision from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”). He was given a service connection disability rating of 30 percent for PTSD effective April 28, 2011, and in a VA award letter dated September 26, 2014, Plaintiff was provided a 100 percent disability evaluation and was “considered to be totally and permanently disabled due to [his] service-connected disabilities.” (Tr. at 303.) A second award letter dated October 16, 2014, noted the effective date of his disability as November 24, 2013. (Tr. at 304.)


         I. The Magistrate Judge's Report

         The Court conducts a de novo review to those portions of the Report to which a specific objection is made, and this Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendations contained in the Report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Any written objection must specifically identify the portion of the Report to which the objection is made and the basis for the objection. Id.

         II. Judicial Review of a Final Decision

         The federal judiciary plays a limited role in the administrative scheme as established by the Social Security Act. Section 205(g) of the Act provides that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security, as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Consequently, judicial review . . . of a final decision regarding disability benefits is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence” is 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 a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.”

Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebreeze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). In assessing whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of” the agency. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (alteration in original).


         I. The Commissioner's Final Decision

         The Commissioner is charged with determining the existence of a disability. The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301-1399, defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in 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 result in death or which has lasted or can expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). This determination involves the following five-step inquiry:

[The first step is] whether the claimant engaged in substantial gainful employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If not, the analysis continues to determine whether, based upon the medical evidence, the claimant has a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) If the claimed impairment is sufficiently severe, the third step considers whether the claimant has an impairment that equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P, App. I. If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, the next inquiry considers if the impairment prevents the claimant from returning to past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) If the answer is in the affirmative, the final consideration looks to whether the impairment precludes that claimant from performing other work.

Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         If the claimant fails to establish any of the first four steps, review does not proceed to the next step. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1993). The burden of production and proof remains with the claimant through the fourth step. However, if the claimant successfully reaches step five, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to provide evidence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant could perform, taking into ...

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