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Stacy v. Saul

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

July 26, 2019

LISA STACY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARY GORDON BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         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 Lisa Stacy (“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 her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned recommends that this matter be remanded for further consideration and analysis by the Commissioner.

         RELEVANT FACTS AND ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff was 45 years old on her alleged disability onset date of April 18, 2014. (R. at 15, 30, 76, 89.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to, inter alia, spinal stenosis; spinal fusion; asthma; and arthritis. (Id. at 76, 89.) Plaintiff has past relevant work as an administrative assistant and mailroom supervisor. (Id. at 29-30, 65; Dkt. No. 13 at 4.)

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on July 7, 2014. (R. at 15; Dkt. No. 13 at 4.) Her application was denied initially on October 7, 2014, and on reconsideration on January 7, 2015. (R. at 15, 88, 102.) A hearing was held on January 4, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”). (Id. at 38-73.) On April 27, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision and found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 15-32.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 16, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Id. at 1-3.)

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

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status-post L4-S1 fusion, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hands, and asthma (20 CFR 404.1520(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 and 404.1526).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, over the course of an eight-hour workday, in two-hour increments, with normal and acceptable work breaks, to perform work at the light exertional level as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except standing and walking combined can be performed for four hours out of an eight-hour workday. Sitting can be performed for six hours out of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally crawl and climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop to lift, within the exertional level, from the floor to the waist, and can frequently stoop to lift within the exertional level from waist height and above. The claimant can frequently balance, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs. Bilateral handling and fingering can be performed frequently. The claimant can tolerate occasional exposure to extreme cold, pulmonary irritants (such as fumes, smoke, odors, dust, gases and poor ventilation), and work place hazards associated with unprotected dangerous machinery or unprotected heights. She can concentrate, persist, and maintain pace to understand, remember and carry out simple, routine tasks, in a low-stress environment (defined as being free of fast-paced or team-dependent production requirements), involving simple, work-related decisions, occasional independent judgment skills, and occasional work place changes.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on October 12, 1968 and was 45 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
(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 transferrable 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 and 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 18, 2014, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(Id. at 17-32.)

         APPLICABLE LAW

         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). “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).

         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 her from doing substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); 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 her past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant-considering her 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] ...


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