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Stewart v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 3, 2019

Vernon Stewart, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Paige J. Gossett United States Magistrate Judge.

         This social security matter is before the court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.). The plaintiff, Vernon Stewart, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the defendant, Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) and (d)(5), 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); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773 (4th Cir. 1973). The regulations require the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to consider, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment;
(3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”), and is thus presumptively disabled;
(4) whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and
(5) whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from doing any other kind of work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[2] If the ALJ can make a determination that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. Id.

         Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983).


         In January 2017, Stewart applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning August 15, 2014. Stewart's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on January 9, 2018, at which Stewart, who was represented by J. Leeds Barroll, IV, Esquire, appeared and testified. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on April 3, 2018 finding that Stewart was not disabled from August 15, 2014 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 13-27.)

         Stewart was born in 1964 and was fifty years old on his alleged disability onset date. He has a college education and has past relevant work experience as a training coordinator and as a human resource worker with the United States Army. (Tr. 219.) Stewart alleged disability due to back issues, neck stenosis, and left leg radiculopathy. (Tr. 218.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Stewart had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of August 15, 2014. The ALJ determined that Stewart's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spines, bilateral pes planus, gout, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that Stewart had not had an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the “Listings”). The ALJ found, after consideration of the entire record that Stewart retained the residual functional

capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with additional restrictions of lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling 20 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for six hours in an eight-hour work day, and, sitting for six hours in an eight-hour work day; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional operation of foot controls, bilaterally, overhead reaching with the left upper extremity, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, balancing, climbing of stairs and ramps, and exposure to hazards. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions but is able to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for periods of two hou[rs], perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and complete a normal workday and workweek. The claimant can have occasional interaction with the general public, occasional close, “team-type” interactions with coworkers, and tolerate occasional changes in routine work setting.

(Tr. 17.) The ALJ found that Stewart was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering Stewart's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Stewart could perform. Therefore, the ALJ found that Stewart had not been disabled from the alleged onset date of August 15, 2014 through the date of the decision.

         The Appeals Council denied Stewart's request for review on May 16, 2018, making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) This action followed.


         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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court may review only whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). “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.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; see also Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). 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].” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; see also Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Accordingly, even if the court disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.


         Stewart raises the following issues for this judicial review:

A. The ALJ's decision discrediting multiple treating medical sources was deficient in its discussion of the regulatory five-factor scheme required to deprive numerous treating medical sources of controlling weight.
B. The ALJ misapplied SSR 16-3p[] in his discredit of the claimant's symptoms.
C. The ALJ failed to discuss the medically determinable impairment of prostatitis.

(Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 7.)

         DISCUSSION [3]

         A. Opinion Evidence

         Stewart first argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion evidence from Larry Dillard, a physician assistant, and Dr. Phillip J. Michels, a psychologist. Stewart also argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the disability rating of the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”).

         1. Medical ...

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