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Groth v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

March 22, 2018

Shirley Dianne Groth, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court upon review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) (ECF No. 28), recommending that the Commissioner's Decision be affirmed. For the reasons stated below, the court REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's Report (ECF No. 28).

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The court concludes upon its own careful review of the record that the factual and procedural summation in the Report (ECF No. 28) is accurate, and the court adopts this summary as its own. The court will only recite herein procedures pertinent to the court's review of the Report (ECF No. 28). On December 7, 2017, Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III filed the Report (ECF No. 28), and on December 21, 2017, Plaintiff timely filed an Objection (ECF No. 29). On January 4, 2018, the Commissioner replied to Plaintiff's Objection. (ECF No. 30.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         The court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) which gives the court jurisdiction over a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Magistrate Judge's Report is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court, which has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objections are made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2)-(3). Additionally, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), “[t]he [court] may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.”

         “Although this court may review parts of the Magistrate Judge's [Report] de novo, judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits ‘is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.'” Sherby v. Astrue, 767 F.Supp.2d 592, 594 (D.S.C. 2010) (citing Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002)). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g), the court may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In May 2015, Plaintiff was assessed with conversion and somatization disorders. (ECF No. 13-2 at 13, ECF No. 13-10 at 9-11.) The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff's conversion/somatic disorder is a severe impairment (ECF No. 13-2 at 13), and that Plaintiff has moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace (id. at 14). However, the ALJ applied Medical Vocational Rule 203.22 to find that Plaintiff is not disabled.[2](ECF No. 13-2 at 22.) The ALJ stated that “[he could not] find that the claimant's moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace are too severe for unskilled work comprised of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions.” (Id. at 15.) Taking Plaintiff's limitations into consideration, the ALJ also found that “[t]he additional limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled medium work. . . . [and] understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions would not preclude unskilled work.” (Id. at 22.)

         Plaintiff specifically objects to the Report's finding that “Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the ALJ erred in relying on the Grids.” (ECF No. 28 at 10; ECF No. 29 at 3.) Plaintiff asserts that “. . . the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the ALJ's decision be affirmed is contrary to Fourth Circuit precedent, as well as [a] recent decision by this court when considering the identical issue regarding the propriety of an ALJ's sole reliance on the Grid Rules.” (ECF No. 29 at 3.) Plaintiff also specifically objects to the Report's finding that, because the ALJ properly relied on the Grid Rules in making his decision, the Commissioner carried her burden at step five of the sequential evaluation of disability claims under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and § 416.920. (Id. at 6; see also ECF No. 28 at 11.) Plaintiff asserts that “in view of the legal error committed by the ALJ in relying solely on the Grid Rules as outlined in the prior section of these objections, . . . this court should decline to adopt the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ did not fail to meet his burden of proof at step five of the sequential evaluation process in this case.” (ECF No. 29 at 6-7.)

         The Magistrate Judge found that “[ ] because the ALJ reasonably found that [Plaintiff] did not have any nonexertional limitations stemming from her mental impairments that would preclude her from doing unskilled, medium work, use of the Grids was not improper.” (ECF No. 28 at 10.) Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that because “. . . the ALJ addressed the evidence concerning [Plaintiff's] alleged mental conditions and explained that he accounted for [Plaintiff's] attention problems and moderate limitations in attentive and cognitive functioning by limiting Plaintiff to unskilled work with only simple instructions and tasks[, ]” the ALJ did not err in relying on the Grid Rules in finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)

         Pursuant to Walker v. Bowen, when a claimant has “both exertional and nonexertional limitations, the Grids are not conclusive, but may only serve as guidelines.” 889 F.2d 47, 49 (4th Cir. 1989) (citing Wilson v. Heckler, 743 F.2d 218, 222 (4th Cir. 1984)). “If [the plaintiff] demonstrates the presence of nonexertional impairments, the [Commissioner], in order to prevail, must be required to prove by expert vocational testimony that, despite [the plaintiff's] combination of nonexertional and exertional impairments, specific jobs exist in the national economy which he can perform.” Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983).[3] “The proper inquiry under Grant is whether the nonexertional condition affects an individual's residual functional capacity to perform work of which he is exertionally capable.” Walker, 889 F.2d at 49; see also Smith v. Schweiker, 719 F.2d 723, 725 (4th Cir. 1984).

         In this case, Plaintiff has proven that she has a severe nonexertional impairment, but the ALJ found that this impairment as well as her additional nonexertional limitations have little or no impact on her ability to perform unskilled work. (ECF No. 13-2 at 22.) At issue in this case is whether the ALJ's reliance solely on the Grids in finding that Plaintiff is not disabled supports the substantial evidence legal standard for the ALJ's decision. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had both exertional and nonexertional impairments; thus, the ALJ had to make a determination as to whether Plaintiff's ...


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