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Howell v. Saul

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

July 10, 2019

BRIAN HOWELL, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This case is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local 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). Plaintiff Brian Howell (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (the “Administration”) regarding his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff was 43 years old on his alleged disability onset date of April 1, 2014. (R. at 20, 82, 90, 101, 110; Dkt. No. 9 at 4.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to a back injury. (R. at 82, 90, 101, 110.) Plaintiff has past relevant work as an air conditioner installer, pipe fitter, and framer. (Id. at 29; Dkt. No. 9 at 4.)

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on July 15, 2014, and an application for SSI on June 26, 2014. (R. at 20, 98, 100, 119, 121; Dkt. No. 9 at 4.) His applications were denied initially on August 27, 2014, and on reconsideration on October 8, 2014. (R. at 20, 88-89, 96-97, 108-09, 117-18.) After an initial hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 22, 2016, (id. at 51-80), and a supplemental hearing on December 7, 2016, (id. at 40-50), the ALJ issued a decision on April 4, 2017, and found that Plaintiff was not disabled (id. at 20-31). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (id. at 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

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

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post right ankle ORIF, and S1 joint dysfunction (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 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 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the non-exertional limitations that he cannot use ladders and can occasionally stoop, crawl, crouch, and kneel.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on March 17, 1971 and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 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 CFR 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 No. in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 1, 2014, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Id. at 22-30.)


         The Act provides that disability benefits shall be available to those persons insured for benefits, who are not of retirement age, who properly apply, and who are under a “disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act also provides that SSI disability benefits shall be available for aged, blind, or disabled persons who have income and resources below a specific amount. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. “Disability” is defined in the Act as the inability to “engage in 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” twelve months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (DIB context); 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (SSI context).[1]

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the 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 which equals an illness contained in the Administration's official Listing of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) has an impairment which prevents past relevant work, and (5) has an impairment which prevents him from doing substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (DIB context); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (SSI context). If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (DIB context); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (SSI context); see also Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260 (4th Cir. 1981).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps of the analysis. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). Once the claimant has established an inability to return to his past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant-considering his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity-can perform alternative jobs and that such jobs exist in the national economy. See SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386, at *3; Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983); see also Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2016). The Commissioner may satisfy this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. See Grant, 699 F.2d at 191-92.

         The scope of judicial review by the federal courts in disability cases is narrowly tailored to determine whether the findings of the Commissioner “are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 691 (4th Cir. 2018); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Consequently, the Act precludes a de novo review of the evidence and requires that the court uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Pyles v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 846, 848 (4th Cir. 1988) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986)); see also Mascio, 780 F.3d at 640; Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012)). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court does] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Id. However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate several aspects of his disability claim. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints based on his failure to obtain additional medical treatment. More specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ should have considered evidence of Plaintiff's financial constraints and determined whether such constraints affected Plaintiff's ability to obtain medical care. (Dkt. No. 9 at 16-18.) Next, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. David Mitchell, M.D. (Id. at 18-20.) Finally, Plaintiff claims that the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider new evidence submitted by Plaintiff in support of his appeal. (Id. at 20-26.) The undersigned considers these arguments in turn.

         I. Consideration of Plaintiff's Subjective Complaints

         In evaluating a claimant's subjective symptoms, the ALJ follows a two-step process under which he must first determine whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's pain or other symptoms. Tyler v. Berryhill, No. 8:15-CV-04457-JDA, 2017 WL 461008, at *9 (D.S.C. Feb. 3, 2017). After determining the presence of an impairment, the ALJ must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant's symptoms to determine the extent to which those symptoms limited his functioning. Id. at *10.

         In evaluating a claimant's symptoms, the decision “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *9.[2]Specifically, the ALJ's decision must “consider all of the evidence in an individual's record, ” including but not limited to, the claimant's daily activities; the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the claimant's pain or other symptoms; factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms; the type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the claimant takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms; treatment, other than medication, the claimant receives or has received for relief of pain or other symptoms; any measures other than treatment the ...

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