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Rucker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 2, 2018

SEQUOYA M. RUCKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARY GORDEN BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Sequoya M. Rucker, through counsel, brought this action to obtain judicial review of an unfavorable final administrative decision denying benefits on her December 10, 2013 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). See Section 205(g) of the SSA, as amended, 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g). This matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B). For the reasons stated herein, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for a new hearing.

         Procedural History and ALJ's Findings

         The Plaintiff was born April 12, 1978, and was 35 years old on the alleged onset of disability date, April 21, 2008. (R. 201.) The Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on December 10, 2013. (R. 201, 206.) The Plaintiff claimed disability due to back problems, depression, and bipolar disorder. (R. 244.) The Plaintiff's claims were initially denied and denied on reconsideration. (R. 131-35, 140-47.) Following a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied her claim on June 22, 2016. (R. 20-33.) The Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies. The ALJ's decision is now the Commissioner's final action for purposes of judicial review. In making the determination that the Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits, the Commissioner adopted the following findings of the ALJ's June 22, 2016 Decision:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2018.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 8, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: low back pain, osteoarthritis of the right knee, Sjogren's syndrome, fibromyalgia, obesity, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and personality disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she can frequently handle and finger; she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards; and she is limited to simple, routine tasks performed by two hours at a time.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on April 12, 1978 and was 35 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 8, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(R. 20-33.)

         Applicable Law

         The Act provides that disability benefits shall be available to those persons insured for benefits, who are not of retirement age, who properly apply, and who are under a “disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act also provides that SSI disability benefits shall be available for aged, blind, or disabled persons who have income and resources below a specific amount. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. “Disability” is defined in the Act 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 last for a continuous period of not less than” twelve months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (definition used in the DIB context); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (definition used in the SSI context).[1]

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Act has by regulation reduced the statutory definition of “disability” to a series of five sequential questions. An examiner must consider whether the claimant (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment which equals an illness contained in the Administration's official Listing of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) has an impairment which prevents past relevant work, and (5) has an impairment which prevents him from doing substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (DIB context); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (SSI context). If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (DIB context); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (SSI context); see also Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260 (4th Cir. 1981).

         A plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act if she can return to past relevant work as it is customarily performed in the economy or as the claimant actually performed the work. See SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386, at *3. The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing her inability to work within the meaning of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i). She must make a prima facie showing of disability by showing that she is unable to return to her past relevant work. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983); see also Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         Once an individual has established an inability to return to her past relevant work, the burden is on the Commissioner to come forward with evidence that the plaintiff can perform alternative work and that such work exists in the regional economy. See Grant, 699 F.2d at 191. The Commissioner may carry the burden of demonstrating the existence of jobs available in the national economy which the plaintiff can perform despite the existence of impairments which prevent the return to past relevant work by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 191-92.

         The scope of judicial review by the federal courts in disability cases is narrowly tailored to determine whether the findings of the Commissioner “are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Consequently, the Act precludes a de novo review of the evidence and requires the court to uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Pyles v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 846, 848 (4th Cir. 1988) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986)). The phrase “substantial evidence” is defined as:

such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Substantial evidence consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence ...

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