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Slater v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

June 6, 2019

ERIC L. SLATER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



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

         Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)[1] on March 14, 2014, (protective filing date), alleging disability beginning June 15, 2012 due to multiple injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident, depression, and anxiety. (R.pp. 50, 52-54, 231-239, 259). Plaintiffs claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on December 16, 2016. (R.pp. 36-76).[2] After the hearing, the ALJ held the record open to obtain additional evidence, which was received. (R.pp. 14, 74-75, 848, 898). Additionally, to account for Plaintiffs alleged lack of access to healthcare, the ALJ arranged for him to undergo consultative physical and psychological evaluations. (R.pp. 899-929). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiffs claim in a decision issued June 12, 1017. (R.pp. 14-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-6).

         Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ made multiple errors when evaluating the opinion evidence of Dr. Andrew Hagenauer, and that this case should be reversed and remanded for further 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. Caiifano. 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).


         Plaintiff was thirty-one years old on his alleged disability onset date, and thirty-six years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Although Plaintiff stated on his disability report that he completed one (1) year of college and has past relevant work experience as an automotive salesman, he testified at the hearing that he only finished school through the tenth grade, never received his GED, and attended a community college for a "little while." (R.pp. 48-51, 254, 260).[3] 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 a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.

         After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the "severe" impairments[4] of headaches, status post right hip/knee laceration, status post right fibular head fracture, status post right femur neck fracture, degenerative join disease of the right hip and knee, depression, and anxiety (R.p. 17), he nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work[5] with the limitations to sit six of eight hours; stand and walk for a total of two of eight hours; only occasionally push/pull with his right lower extremity; never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds; frequently climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; do unskilled work (SVP 1 or 2) performed on a sustained basis (8 hours a day, 5 days a week, in 2-hour increments with normal breaks); work in a low stress work environment (defined as non-production work, specifically no fast-paced work such as an assembly line where a person would have to produce a product in a high-speed manner); and, to accommodate stress, not have any public contact. (R.pp. 19-20). Although the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work with this RFC (R.p. 27), the ALJ obtained testimony from a vocational expert (VE) and found at step five that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant No. in the national economy with these limitations, and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 28-29, 71-73). See Wilson v. Califano. 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980) [ALJ may rely on VE opinion based on training, experience and familiarity with skills necessary to function in various jobs].

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in reaching his conclusions by improperly evaluating consultative examiner Dr. Andrew Hagenauer's opinion evidence. However, after a careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds and concludes for the reasons set forth herein below that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642 [Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion"].

         It is undisputed that Dr. Hagenauer was only a one-time consultative examiner - he was not a treating physician. On February 17, 2017, Dr. Hagenauer examined Plaintiff to further develop the medical record after the ALJ held the record open so additional evidence could be provided. (R.pp. 903-907, 927). Plaintiff told Dr. Hagenauer that he had multiple complaints, but that his most disabling problem was his head pain. Plaintiff reported to Dr. Hagenauer that his symptoms had gotten worse, and that he has a daily headache with pain radiating to his left eye causing and inducing nausea, sometimes vomiting, and has had a change in his vision more so on his left than his right. Plaintiff also reported complications stemming from his head problems, including memory loss, leading to him having a more withdrawn mood and issues with concentration. Plaintiff reported daily headaches that are intermittent and aching, squeezing, and burning in nature. Even so, Dr. Hagenauer noted that the only ...

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