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Witt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 29, 2018




         The Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein he 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 February 4, 2013 (protective filing date), alleging disability since January 7, 2012 due to deep vein thrombosis[1](“DVT”)/blood clot, chronic post thrombotic syndrome, arthritis, diabetes, and fatigue. (R.pp. 139, 167, 170). Plaintiffs application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R.pp. 73, 87). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on July 29, 2015. (R.pp. 30-58). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiffs claim in a decision dated October 7, 2015. (R.pp. 11-23). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff s request for review, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court, asserting 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 (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).

         (Medical Records) [2]

         Plaintiff has a history of DVT dating back to 2002. (R.pp. 345, 348). However, she does not contend that this condition became disabling until January 2012, following foot surgery in December 2011. After this surgery, Plaintiff developed DVT in her left leg and was hospitalized from January 7 to January 15, 2012. (R.pp. 354-357). On March 15, 2012, Dr. Michael Tollison of Piedmont Orthopedic Associates opined that Plaintiff was better and wearing support hose. However, he noted that she was limited in her ability to stand and walk. (R.p. 248).

         In May 2012, records from Self Regional Healthcare noted that Plaintiff was prescribed physical therapy due to Plantar Fibromatosis, ankle joint pain, general muscle weakness, difficulty walking, pain in her left lower extremity, and joint stiffness of the ankle. (R.p. 255). On June 7, 2012, Dr. John Holman saw Plaintiff for DVT with chronic swelling in her left leg. (R.p. 434). Dr. Holman opined that Plaintiff had venous stasis, [3] and expressed concern that she may get postphlebitic syndrome.[4] (R.p. 434). Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Homan over the course of the year. (R.pp. 425-431, 473-475). On May 21, 2013, Dr. Holman opined that Plaintiff had swelling in her left leg due to chronic venous stasis of the left lower extremity secondary to illofemoral deep venous thrombosis in the left leg. (R.p. 478). On May 28, 2013, Plaintiff completed an Adult Function Report in which she stated that sitting for prolonged periods of time caused swelling in her leg, that she is limited in the amount of time that she can stand in one place due to leg swelling, and that walking also causes swelling. (R.pp. 190-191).

         On July 19, 2013, Dr. Tony Rana noted that Plaintiff was wearing a compression stocking on her left leg and had some swelling on her knee. (R.p. 504). Dr. Rama diagnosed Plaintiff with post-thrombotic syndrome of the left leg with symptoms of pain, some edema, and no history of pulmonary embolism. (R.p. 505). On July 30, 2013, Dr. Holman noted that Plaintiff had edema with varicosities in the legs with left ankle pitting edema, left pretibial pitting edema, and left knee pitting edema. (R.p. 514). On August 23, 2013, Dr. Holman opined that Plaintiff had chronic swelling in her left leg following a second episode of DVT. Dr. Holman noted that Plaintiff was on chronic Coumadin, had venous incompetence in her left leg, and was at risk of ulceration in her left leg if she did not wear compression hose. (R.p. 431). On October 14, 2013, Dr. Holman reported that Plaintiff had some left ankle pitting edema. (R.p. 674). On October 18, 2013, Plaintiff's physical examination showed venous insufficiency, and she was diabetic. (R.p. 428). Dr. Holman opined following an examination on December 18, 2014, that Plaintiff's extremities for edema and/or varicosities was abnormal with left pretibial pitting edema. (R.p. 763). On January 20, 2014, Dr. Holman reported that Plaintiff continued to have left ankle, left pretibial, and left knee pitting edema. She was ambulating with an abnormal gait limping on the right. (R.p. 731). On February 10, 2015, Dr. Holman also reported left pretibial pitting edema. (R.p. 774). In June 2015, a scan showed chronic thrombus. (R.p. 853).

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that her left leg needs to be elevated periodically throughout the day. (R.pp. 39-40). She also testified that she can stand up for only 15-20 minutes, 30 minutes maximum, prior to having to get off of her leg and trying to elevate it. (R.p. 40). Plaintiff's counsel also submitted photographs at the hearing for the ALJ to review, which he stated showed swelling in Plaintiff's knee and leg. (R.p. 57).


         Plaintiff, who was forty two (42) years old on January 7, 2012 (when she alleges she became disabled), has a college education and past relevant work experience as a case worker in a variety of agencies, including an alcohol rehabilitation program, a program for children with special needs, and a center for treatment of injuries to the head and spinal cord. (R.pp. 36-38). 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 ...

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