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Taylor v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

July 9, 2018

Toni Kay Taylor, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Toni Kay Taylor (“Taylor”), brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Before this court is the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending the court to affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 28).[1] Taylor has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 30), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 33). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         On March 22, 2013, Taylor applied for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of August 29, 2012, due to degenerative joint disease in knee, degenerative disease in back, depression, and anxiety. (ECF Nos. 10-6 at 2; 10-7 at 26). On October 8, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing and heard testimony from Taylor and a vocational expert (“VE”). (ECF No. 10-2 at 29-80).

         On November 27, 2015, the ALJ denied Taylor's claim for SSI. (ECF No. 10-2 at 10-25). In his decision, the ALJ found that Taylor suffered from the following severe impairments: “lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post (s/p) L5-S1 anterior lumbar interbody fusion with instrumentation, s/p posterior spinal fusion with instrumentation, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, s/p multiple arthroscopic procedures, and morbid obesity (20 CFR 416.920(c)).” (ECF No. 10-2 at 15). The ALJ then concluded that, despite limitations, Taylor could perform jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy. (ECF No. 10-2 at 23). Taylor sought review of her case by the Appeals Council. (ECF No. 10-2 at 6). However, the Appeals Council denied Taylor's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (ECF No. 10-2 at 2). This action followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, “the 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). “Substantial evidence has been defined . . . as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the court's findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Thus, in its review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         However, “[f]rom this it does not follow . . . that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the courts must not abdicate their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the [Commissioner's] findings, and that this conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

         III. Discussion

         In her objections, Taylor contends the Magistrate Judge erred in recommending affirming the ALJ's decision on two grounds. (ECF No. 30). First, Taylor contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider all her impairments in combination. Specifically, Taylor argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider her carpal tunnel syndrome and her sacroiliac joint arthropathy. (ECF No. 30 at 1-4). Second, Taylor argues that the ALJ failed to properly assess her credibility. Id. at 4-7. Specifically, Taylor argues that the ALJ erred in finding that the objective evidence does not support her subjective reports because she required seven knee arthroscopies and two lumbar surgeries. Id. at 4. Also, Taylor argues the ALJ failed to explain how he found her activities of daily living were only mildly limited. Id.[2]

         A. Combination of Impairments

         In her Report, the magistrate judge first addresses Taylor's argument that the ALJ did not consider her carpal tunnel syndrome to be a severe impairment. (Report at 15). In her objections, Taylor contends that the ALJ did not properly consider her left-handed carpal tunnel syndrome, which was not treated with surgery, when she is left-handed and the ALJ limited her to sedentary work requiring bilateral manual dexterity. (ECF No. 30 at 2).

         I. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

         As the magistrate judge stated (Report at 17), whether the ALJ found the carpal tunnel syndrome to be severe cannot be the basis for a remand. An ALJ's failure to designate a claimant's condition as severe at step two of the disability determination process, even if erroneous, does not always warrant remand. Step two is a threshold determination of whether a claimant has a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets the twelve-month duration requirement and significantly limits their ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520-404.1523. If the ALJ finds no severe impairments, the claimant is not disabled and the analysis does not proceed further. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. However, if a claimant does have a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, the ALJ must consider the effects of both the severe and non-severe impairments at the subsequent steps of the process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5 (1996); SSR 86-8, 1986 WL 68636, at *5 (1986). Therefore, if the ALJ proceeds to discuss and consider the non-severe ...


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