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Coleman v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2019

Anthony Coleman, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Kevin F. McDonald, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case is before the court for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.), concerning the disposition of Social Security cases in this District, and Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B).[1]

         The plaintiff brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.


         The plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits on February 10 and 20, 2014, respectively. In both applications, the plaintiff alleged that he became unable to work on March 15, 2013. Both applications were denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On August 29, 2014, the plaintiff requested a hearing. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”), before whom the plaintiff and Carroll H. Crawford, an impartial vocational expert, appeared on November 8, 2016, considered the case de novo, and on December 14, 2016, found that the plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, as amended (Tr. 16-26). The ALJ's finding became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review on August 1, 2017 (Tr. 1-4). The plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review.

         In making the determination that the plaintiff is not entitled to benefits, the Commissioner has adopted the following findings of the ALJ:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2013.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R §§ 404.1571 et seq., 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease; cervical degenerative disc disease; obesity; and degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hips (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with additional limitations. Specifically, the claimant can lift 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and sit, stand, and walk up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday. However, the claimant is unable to use ladders or be exposed to dangerous, moving machinery or unprotected heights. The claimant can frequently climb stairs and can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on June 19, 1964, and was 48 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963).
(8) The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564, 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 15, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g)).

         The only issues before the court are whether proper legal standards were applied and whether the final decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(5) and § 1382c(a)(3)(A), (H)(i), as well as pursuant to the regulations formulated by the Commissioner, the plaintiff has the burden of proving disability, which is defined as an “inability to do 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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Social Security 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 that meets or medically equals an impairment contained in the Listing of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, (4) can perform his past relevant work, and (5) can perform other work. Id. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         A claimant must make a prima facie case of disability by showing he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983). Once an individual has established a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the plaintiff can perform alternative work and that such work exists in the national economy. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Id. at 192.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may review the Commissioner's denial of benefits. However, this review is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's findings “are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. In reviewing the evidence, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. Consequently, even if the court disagrees with Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).


         The plaintiff was 48 years old on his alleged disability onset date (March 15, 2013) and 52 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision (December 14, 2016). He completed the tenth grade and obtained a GED (Tr. 36-37, 258). He has past relevant work experience as a machine fixer, material handler, and weaver (Tr. 24-25, 37-38).

         Evidence Before the ALJ

         On September 19, 2010, the plaintiff was involved in an accident when he ran his bicycle into a parked car, fracturing his right cheekbone and right clavicle (Tr. 345-49).

         On January 19, 2011, the plaintiff was seen by Harriett Steinert, M.D., for a consultative examination. Dr. Steinert noted that the plaintiff reported pain in his right shoulder since his accident. He also stated that he had suffered from pain in his lumbar spine for approximately 22 years, which was exacerbated by the bicycle accident. The plaintiff reported that the back pain was present all the time and radiated from his left leg into the bottom of his foot. He stated that he could sit and walk for 15 minutes at a time (Tr. 422) Upon physical examination, Dr. Steinert stated, in pertinent part:

There is full range of motion of the cervical spine. There is no tenderness to palpation of the neck. There are no palpable masses, no thyromegaly, and no carotid bruit. There is full range of motion of all joints in all four extremities except for his right shoulder. He can elevate his right shoulder to 90 degrees in any direction with pain and he is tender to palpation in the rotator cuff. There are no sensory or motor deficits in any extremity. There is no muscle atrophy. Grip strength is normal and equal bilaterally (5/5). There are normal and equal fine motor and gross motor skills in both hands. Deep tendon reflexes are equal and normal in all extremities. Peripheral pulses are normal and equal in all extremities. There is no pedal edema in either lower extremity. The patient can flex at the waist to 90 degrees, extend 5 degrees and fully laterally flex, with pain with all movement. There is no tenderness to palpation of the spine or paraspinous muscles. Straight leg raises are negative bilaterally. The patient is able to walk ...

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