United States District Court, D. South Carolina
KAYMANI D. WEST UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
social security matter is before the court pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.)
for final adjudication, with the consent of the parties, of
Plaintiff's petition for judicial review. Plaintiff
brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to
obtain judicial review of a final decision the Commissioner
of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her
claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”)
pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”).
Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and
the applicable law, the court affirms the Commissioner's
decision for the reasons discussed herein.
March 15, 2016,  Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI under
Title XVI of the Act, alleging a disability onset date of
January 5, 2015. Tr. 216-21. Plaintiff's application was
denied initially on November 22, 2016, Tr. 116, and upon
reconsideration on March 29, 2017, Tr. 138.
requested a hearing before an ALJ, Tr. 158, and the ALJ
conducted a hearing on September 19, 2017, taking testimony
from Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Ryan
Farrell, Tr. 32-78. Representing Plaintiff at that hearing
was her attorney, Brett A. Owens. Tr. 32. The ALJ denied
Plaintiff's claim in a decision dated December 26, 2017.
Tr. 10-27. Plaintiff requested review of this decision from
the Appeals Council on February 23, 2018. Tr. 212. On April
16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision
of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-5. Plaintiff brought this action
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in
a Complaint filed June 15, 2018. ECF No. 1.
was born in October 1968 and was 47 years old when she filed
her application for SSI on March 15, 2016, and 46 years old
as of the alleged onset date of January 5, 2015. Tr. 245. In
her form Disability Report-Adult dated April 26, 2016,
Plaintiff indicated she completed two years of college in
September 2011. Tr. 235. She listed her past relevant work
(“PRW”) as relay operation/communication (Dec.
2004-Sept. 2005), temporary office assistant (Oct. 2005-April
2006), office manager (April 2006-Feb. 2008), secretary (Mar.
2008-May 2008), and medical transcriptionist (Mar. 2012-May
2012). Tr. 236. Plaintiff indicated she stopped working on
May 21, 2012 because of her medical conditions which she
listed as: chronic back pain, lower thoracic scoliosis, cyst
on hand, degenerative disc disease, chronic kidney disease,
depression, colonic polyps, gastrointestinal bleeding, type 3
paraesophageal hernia, sciatica, ongoing urinary tract
infections, arthropathy, and dysphagia. Tr. 234. Plaintiff
indicated she was 5'3” tall and weighed 140 pounds.
Disability Report-Appeal dated January 3, 2017 Plaintiff
indicated a change in her medical condition that occurred
November 21, 2016. Tr. 261. Plaintiff noted that lab results
indicated changes in her thyroid levels and an ongoing
urinary tract infection. Id. Plaintiff noted she had
“[f]atigue, excessive sleeping and [was] having
difficulty concentrating.” Id. She indicated
she was “having mobility issues and it is impaired as
cannot stand, sit or walk for long periods of time due to the
diagnoses. Am having issues with thyroid, kidney/urinary
tract and gastrointestinal (upper and lower).”
Id. Plaintiff indicated that it was difficult for
her to see specialists because of her lack of insurance and
financial coverage. She also indicated she had problems
“trying to afford some medications, xrays and
diagnostic testing.” Id. In a subsequent
Disability Report-Appeal dated April 13, 2017, Plaintiff
indicated a change in her condition that occurred April 21,
2015. Tr. 272. Plaintiff noted that she was having difficulty
walking and required “assistance of an apparatus”
due to diagnoses related to her left hip, hands, knees, and
ankles. Id. Plaintiff noted a change that occurred
on April 21, 2016, of “limited physical mobility,
narrowing of the joints, dizziness” and new conditions
of myocardial infarction and decompressed bladder as of
November 21, 2015. Tr. 272-73.
September 19, 2017, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at an
administrative hearing in Columbia, South Carolina and
testified regarding her application for SSI. Tr. 32. VE Ryan
Farrell also appeared and testified at the hearing.
response to questions from the ALJ Plaintiff testified that
she was 48 years old and since the end of July she has been
living in the Transitions shelter due to health and financial
reasons. Tr. 37. Plaintiff testified that prior to that she
lived in her parents' home in West Columbia. Id.
Plaintiff testified that her mother died three years ago, and
her father died a year-and-a-half ago. Tr. 38. Plaintiff
stated that after her parents died and until she went to
Transitions, her niece lived in the house with her “off
and on.” Id. Plaintiff testified that she was
divorced and did not have any children or dependents. Tr. 39.
Plaintiff stated that she no longer had a driver's
license because five years prior it was suspended for unpaid
tickets. Id. Plaintiff testified that before she
moved to Transitions she used Medicaid transportation, or a
friend or family member would drive her. Tr. 40. Plaintiff
testified that she graduated from high school and later
received a certificate in medical transcription. Id.
Plaintiff stated she worked in the medical transcription
field for two or three months, but she could not keep up with
the workload. Tr. 40-41. Plaintiff stated she never served in
the military. Tr. 41. Plaintiff testified that she is
right-handed, 5'3” tall, and weighed 158 pounds.
response to questions from her attorney, Plaintiff outlined
her work history. Plaintiff testified that in 2008 she worked
for two or three months for Keeler Landscape & Design
scheduling appointments, answering phones, and typing and
filing documents. Tr. 42. Prior to that she worked with Metro
Blueprint & Supply (which bought out a company called
iSqFt) where she organized documents for construction jobs.
Plaintiff testified that she would occasionally have to lift
50 pounds. Tr. 42-44. Plaintiff testified that she left the
job voluntarily because “it was a little bit heavier of
a workflow than [she] could do by [her]self.”
Id. Plaintiff testified that she worked in a
temporary position with Snack Time Distributors doing data
entry while an employee of the company was on maternity
leave. Tr. 44. Plaintiff confirmed that she also did
secretarial work for Richard Miller & Associates in
Jacksonville, and she did data entry for Kenneth Heatherman
and Columbia Check Cashers. Tr. 45-46. Plaintiff testified
that other than the job at iSqFt/Metro Blueprint & Supply
she did not have any specific physical requirements of
lifting and worked in an office setting. Tr. 46. The VE
questioned Plaintiff briefly for clarification regarding
employment dates and job duties. Tr. 46-48. Plaintiff
confirmed that she never worked in a supervisory capacity in
any of her past jobs. Tr. 48.
testified that the issues that prevent her from working are
problems with her back, legs, feet, and gastrointestinal
issues. Tr. 50. Plaintiff also testified that she was
“kind of mentally a little bit slow.”
Id. Plaintiff testified that she has struggled with
mental issues for 10-20 years. Tr. 51. Plaintiff testified
that last year she was involuntarily admitted to the hospital
for mental issues and was hospitalized for about
two-and-a-half weeks. Id. Plaintiff stated that
other than her regular doctor prescribing antidepressants,
she was not receiving currently any medical treatment for her
mental condition. Id. Plaintiff described her mental
state as sometimes being depressed, having memory problems,
and occasional crying spells. Tr. 52.
described her typical day at Transitions. She testified that
she normally wakes up at 6:30, gets dressed without
assistance, and takes financial and health-related classes
every day. Tr. 53-54. Plaintiff stated that meals are
provided but she is responsible for cleaning her area. Tr.
55. Plaintiff testified that when she was living at home she
would do “a little bit of spot cleaning” and
would prepare microwave meals and sandwiches. Tr. 55-56.
Plaintiff testified that she could stand for ten minutes
before her “left hip and knee would start kind of going
out on [her].” Tr. 57. She said they would sometimes
become painful and sometimes go numb. Id. Plaintiff
testified that she experiences problems with her back daily
that consisted of pain in the lower to middle back. Tr.
57-58. Plaintiff stated that a lot of walking or sitting made
it worse. Tr. 58. Plaintiff stated she could probably walk a
city block before experiencing pain in her lower back that
would be unbearable. Id. Plaintiff stated that after
walking one block she would have to sit and rest for
“probably about 30 minutes or to an hour.” Tr.
59. Plaintiff testified that she has problems with her legs
daily caused by walking or standing for long periods. She
confirmed that if she were to walk she would not only have
the back pain but would also have leg pain. Id.
Plaintiff stated the pain was “a little worse in the
left leg than the right.” Tr. 60. She also testified to
pain and swelling in her feet. Id. Plaintiff's
counsel noted that she had been sitting for 35 minutes and
asked at what point would she need to get up and move around.
Plaintiff stated that although it gets uncomfortable she
could sit for 45 minutes to an hour. Id. Plaintiff
testified that when she was living at home the heaviest thing
she would lift would be a gallon jug of water. Tr. 61.
Plaintiff stated that she would leave home on average once a
week to go to the grocery store. Tr. 61-62. Plaintiff
testified that although someone would take her to the store
she was able to do the grocery shopping by herself. Tr. 62.
Plaintiff stated that physical problems occurred while
shopping if she walked too much or carried or tried to lift
heavy items. Plaintiff stated that she had no mental problems
related to grocery shopping but on prompting by her attorney
stated she was a little bothered by being in crowds.
Id. Plaintiff testified that when she was at home
she would watch television or be on the internet. Tr. 63.
Plaintiff stated that she had a Facebook account that she
used once or twice a month. Id. Plaintiff stated her
hobby was doll collecting and her dolls were still at the
house. Id. Plaintiff stated that her niece and her
friend were living in the house and paying the bills. Tr. 64.
Plaintiff testified to having problems with short-term memory
and with concentration. Id. Plaintiff stated that
she currently sleeps in four-hour spurts, which makes her
tired during the day. Tr. 64-65. Plaintiff testified that she
smokes two-to-four cigarettes a day that she either buys or
someone else gives her. Tr. 65. Plaintiff stated that she
spends most of her time on the premises at Transitions unless
she has a bus pass or leaves with a friend. Tr. 66. She
testified that she does not socialize very often but does try
to stay in touch with friends. Id.
resumed questioning of Plaintiff. Plaintiff testified that
she still does cross-stitch “a couple of times a week
for a little while.” Tr. 66. She stated that her room
at Transitions is like a dormitory and she shares it with 10
or 15 women. Tr. 67. Plaintiff testified that she does not
have a problem getting along with the other women and she is
allowed to keep her tablet and cell phone. Id.
Plaintiff confirmed that in the past she had surgery on her
wrists and she stated that she has problems occasionally with
both hands with stiffness, dropping things, or being unable
to lift. Tr. 67-68. Plaintiff stated that she has arthritis
gloves that she wears a couple of times a week. She
acknowledged that her left hand is worse than the right and
she is right-handed. Tr. 68. Plaintiff stated she sometimes
had problems with fine fingering actions. Tr. 68-69.
Plaintiff confirmed that in addition to taking classes at
Transitions she is required to look for work. Tr. 69.
Plaintiff stated that she spoke with vocational
rehabilitation and they required that she obtain a
doctor's release before she could go to work.
Id. Plaintiff stated she has not spoken with her
doctor about going back to work. Id.
asked the VE to classify Plaintiff's PRW, but before
doing so the VE confirmed with Plaintiff that she also worked
from 2002 to 2005 for a private company as a relay operator
for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Tr. 70-71. The VE
identified Plaintiff's PRW as a receptionist, Dictionary
of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) number
237.367-038, SVP of 4, sedentary; administrative clerk, DOT
number 219.362-010, SVP of 4, light but performed as medium;
telephone operator, DOT number 235.662-022, SVP of 3,
sedentary. Tr. 71.
asked the VE to consider that work background for a younger
individual with at least a high school education and with
medical impairments that limit her to light work requiring
lifting only 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently.
Tr. 72. The ALJ posed the following additional limitations:
The individual can sit, stand and walk for six hours a day
each. She . . . has the following non-exertional limitations.
She can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can only
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She
cannot work at heights or around hazardous machinery. She
cannot work where exposed to concentrated vibration or in an
environment that has excessive noise. She can only frequently
handle objects and frequently finger objects with either
hand. . . . In addition, the individual is limited to
performing the simple/routine tasks of unskilled work in
occupations that require only simple/work-related decisions.
She can occasionally have contact with co-workers and
supervisors. She can have no contact with the general public
and those are the limitations in my first hypothetical.
Tr. 72-73. The ALJ asked if that individual could perform any
of Plaintiff's past work and the VE responded in the
negative. Tr. 73. The VE testified that there would be light,
unskilled jobs with an SVP of 2 that would match the
description and identified the following representative
examples: marker, DOT number 209.587-034, with 168, 000
available nationally; order caller, DOT number 209.667-014,
with 86, 000 available nationally; and apparel stock checker,
DOT number 299.667-014, with 80, 000 available nationally.
asked how the ability to perform the identified jobs would be
affected if he added the limitation that the individual would
be off task or non-productive a minimum of 20 percent of the
workday because of her impairments. Tr. 74. The VE testified
that limitation “would preclude any competitive
employment.” Id. The ALJ asked if there would
be any unskilled work available for an individual who missed
three or more days of work per month and the VE responded in
counsel had no questions for the VE. Tr. 75.
December 26, 2017 decision, the ALJ made the following
findings of fact and conclusions of law:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since March 15, 2016, the application date (20 CFR
416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, affective disorder and