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Torres v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 27, 2018

DENISE M. TORRES, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Denise M. Torres, through counsel, brought this action to obtain judicial review of an unfavorable final administrative decision denying benefits on her September 23, 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 May 27, 1970, and was 42 years old on the alleged onset of disability date, January 1, 2013. (R. 245, 345.) The Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on September 23, 2013. (R. 245, 249.) The Plaintiff claimed disability due to spinal arthritis, fibromyalgia, left knee injury, depression, bulging discs in back and neck, spinal stenosis and facet stenosis, bursitis in hips, injury to left knee, depression, migraines, and sleep disorder. (R. 282.) The Plaintiff's claims were initially denied and denied on reconsideration. (R. 133-35, 162-64.) Following a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied her claim on June 16, 2016. (R. 17-26.) 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 16, 2016 Decision:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2013, the amended alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar and cervical facet arthropathy, fibromyalgia, headaches, obesity, and left knee issues/osteoarthritis (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 the claimant can sit for 6 hours; stand for 2 hours; walk for 2 hours; push and pull as much as the claimant can lift/carry; occasionally use left or right foot controls; frequent reach overhead on the left and right side; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch; never crawl, never be exposed to unprotected heights or operate a motor vehicle; must avoid concentrated exposures to extreme heat and cold; in addition to normal breaks would be off task 10% of time in an 8-hour workday; would be absent from work one day a month; and would require a brief postural change once per hour at or near the work station up to a maximum duration of 5 minutes.
(6) The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative assistant. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(R. 17-27.)

         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 ...

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