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Jackson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 26, 2019

KENNETH JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Bristow Marchant United States Magistrate Judge

         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 Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)[1] on March 31, 2014, alleging disability beginning June 28, 2013 due to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bi-polar disorder, anxiety, sinusitis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, drug addiction, and erectile dysfunction. (R.pp. 166, 173, 206, 942). Plaintiff subsequently amended his alleged onset date to September 15, 2014. (R.pp. 930, 932). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on December 4, 2015. ALJ Ronald Sweeda thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued January 8, 2016 (R.pp. 35-50, 1013-1020), and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R.pp. 1-7). Plaintiff appealed the decision to this Court, and the decision was reversed and remanded by Order dated March 24, 2017. (R.pp. 978-1002). Another hearing was then held on on December 7, 2018, following which ALJ Sweeda again denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued January 22, 2018. (R.pp. 930-943, 949-977). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision of January 22, 2018 the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 922-924).

         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 administrative proceedings. 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).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff, who was fifty-two (52) years old when he alleges he became disabled, has at least a high school education and past relevant work experience as a land surveyor and a program supervisor. (R.pp. 166, 942). On April 13, 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Plaintiff was “permanent and totally disabled effective 9/15/14” (Plaintiff's amended onset date). (R.p. 907). In order to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that he has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent him from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which he is qualified by his age, education, experience and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for at least twelve (12) consecutive months.

         After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[2] of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, thereby rendering him unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (R.pp. 933, 942). Even so, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, limited to Plaintiff only being able to concentrate sufficiently in two hour increments to perform simple, repetitive tasks with no contact with the general public, no work in a team setting, and no production pace work. (R.p. 934). After obtaining Vocational Expert (VE) testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits because there were jobs that existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform with these limitations. (R.pp. 942-943).

         Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision the ALJ erred by improperly relying on the testimony of the vocational expert because there was a discrepancy between the jobs the VE testified Plaintiff could perform and the requirements for those jobs and because the VE's opinion was based on an improper hypothetical. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinions of record. After careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned is constrained to agree with the ...


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