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Ferguson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

June 19, 2019

JENNIFER ANNE FERGUSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, 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 she 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 Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)[1] on May 15, 2014, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2010 due to depression, anxiety, and Duane's Syndrome (an eye disorder). (R.pp. 255-258, 259-264, 294). 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 April 11, 2017. (R.pp. 38-65). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision issued July 19, 2017. (R.pp. 12-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-5).

         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 an award of benefits. 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');">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

         The record reflects that Plaintiff, who was thirty-two (32) years old on her alleged disability onset date, graduated from high school, has several years of college and technical school, and works as a receiver at Burlington Coat Factory, a job which she has held since August 2014. (R.pp. 28, 43, 45-47, 393, 422, 702). In that position, Plaintiff works two (2) to five (5) days a week, between four (4) to eight (8) hours a day. (R.p.53)[Plaintiff testified that work “depends on how many hours are available for the receiving department, how much merchandise we have to process]. Plaintiff also previously worked seven (7) hours a day at a vocational rehabilitation center (R.pp. 375, 422), and also has past relevant work as a sandwich maker. (R.pp. 27, 46-47, 422, 444). In order to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience and functional capacity, and which lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for at least twelve (12) consecutive months. After a review of the evidence and testimony in this case, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[2] of autism, Duane's Syndrome, and an affective disorder, thereby rendering her unable to perform her past relevant work, she nevertheless retained the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform other jobs which exist in sufficient No. in the national economy with these limitations, and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 17, 27-29).

         Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision, the ALJ erred by improperly assigning “little”, “limited”, or “some” weight to the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Stephens, and her treating therapist, Jill Jones, LISW-CP, as well as consultative examiner Robin Moody, Ph.D., which resulted in an improper RFC; by assigning Plaintiff an RFC that is not supported by substantial evidence since it does not include any limitations for time off tasks or work absences; and by not properly considering the side effects of her medications. However, after careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds and concludes for the reasons set forth hereinbelow that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. Laws, 368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640 [Substantial evidence is “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion”].

         I.

         RFC and Medical Source Opinions[3]

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assigning “little”, “limited”, or “some” weight to medical source opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Stephens, and her treating therapist, Jill Jones, LISW-CP, as well as consultative examiner Robin Moody, Ph.D., without evaluating the factors required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's error in weighing these opinions resulted in the assignment of an improper RFC.

         RFC is defined as “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [the claimant's] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In SSR 96-8p, RFC is defined as a function-by-function assessment of an individual's physical and mental capacity to do sustained, work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis of eight hours per day, five days per week, or the equivalent. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184. An RFC “assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations).” Id. at *7. Here, the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's RFC by including in his decision a narrative discussion of the medical and nonmedical evidence leading to his conclusion that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels subject to the following limitations: she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasionally climb ramps or stairs and be exposed to unprotected heights; limited to occupations not requiring the ability to drive an automobile or operate machinery; must avoid people approaching from the side; limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions and with few, if any workplace changes; but capable of learning simple vocational tasks and completing them at an adequate pace with persistence in a vocational setting; and performing simple tasks for two-hour blocks of time with normal rest breaks during an eight-hour workday; and with only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. (R.pp. 20-27). See Knox v. Astrue, 327 Fed.Appx. 652, 657 (7th Cir. 2009) [“[T]he expression of a claimant's RFC need not be articulated function-by-function; a narrative discussion of a claimant's symptoms and medical source opinions is sufficient”], citing Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1217 (9th Cir. 2005); Osgar v. Barnhart, No. 02-2552, 2004 WL 3751471, at *5 (D.S.C. Mar. 29, 2004). In doing so, the ALJ specifically explained why he did not credit the contradictory evidence in the record, including the opinion evidence. (R.pp. 21-27); see Lyall v. Chater, No. 94-2395, 1995 WL 417654, at * 1 (4th Cir. 1995)[Finding no error where the ALJ's analysis “was sufficiently comprehensive as to permit appellate review”].

         Plaintiff spends a significant amount of time in her brief focusing on the ALJ's RFC findings with respect to her mental impairments. However, although the ALJ found that Plaintiff's autism and affective disorder were severe impairments, he properly accounted for these mental impairments in her RFC by (as previously noted) limiting Plaintiff to the performance of simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions and with few, if any, workplace changes; finding that she is capable of learning simple vocational tasks and completing them at an adequate pace with persistence in a vocational setting; and limiting her to performing simple tasks for two-hour blocks of time with normal rest breaks during an eight-hour workday, with only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. (R.p. 20). The undersigned can discern no reversible error in these findings.

         The record reflects that Plaintiff was a good student in high school and attended several years of college at Oral Roberts University and at Greenville Tech. (R.pp. 44, 345, 428, 444, 472, 500, 651). The reason Plaintiff did not complete her college degree was because “she didn't know what she wanted to do.” (R.p. 500). Plaintiff then worked for six (6) years as a sandwich maker, but stopped working in 2010 after the birth of her daughter. (R.pp. 47, 609). Although Plaintiff now alleges she has been disabled since 2010, in 2014 she rejoined the work force after getting a divorce. (R.pp. 43, 53, 375, 379, 422). She worked seven-hour shifts at a vocational rehabilitation center between May and August of 2014 (R.pp. 375, 422), before starting her current position as a receiver at Burlington Coat Factory in August 2014. (R.pp. 45, 47, 53). She works two (2) to five (5) days a week, four (4) to eight (8) hours a day, depending on seasonal needs. (R.p. 53). Although multi-tasking reportedly proves difficult for her, she testified ...


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