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Mattox v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

August 28, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         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 Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on July 31, 2016 (protective filing date), alleging disability beginning April 27, 2016 due to bipolar-manic disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, osteoarthritis, connective tissue disorder, diabetes, sinusitis, chronic inflammation, fibromyalgia, Graves disease, autoimmune disorders, thyroidism, and irritable bowel syndrome. (R.pp. 25, 195-201, 213). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was then held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on January 25, 2018 (R.pp. 25, 46-72), following which the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision dated March 13, 2018. (R.pp. 25-38). 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. 5-7).

         Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for payment of benefits, or for further consideration of her claims. 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, 98 2-983 (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 (4th Cir. 1966)); see also Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th Cir. 2008)[Nothing 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).


         Plaintiff, who was thirty-nine (39) years old on her alleged disability onset date, has a college degree and past relevant work experience as a cosmetic supervisor, a container coordinator (port position), and contract administrator (chemical sales). (R.pp. 52-55, 66, 195). 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 has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.

         After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[1] of bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, type I diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, inflammatory polyarthropathy, and a tremor (R.p. 27), she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) for light work, [2] with additional limitations that she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can frequently balance and stoop; and must avoid exposure to cold, vibration, and hazards. The ALJ additionally found that Plaintiff could perform and sustain simple, routine tasks with occasional superficial contact with co-workers and the general public, and occasional changes in the work setting. (R.p. 30). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work with these limitations. (R.p. 36). However, the ALJ obtained testimony from a vocational expert (VE) and found at step five that Plaintiff could perform other representative occupations with these limitations, such as hand packager (DOT # 559.687-074), bander (pens/pencils) (DOT # 733.687-018), and hand bander (paper) (DOT # 920.687-026), and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.pp. 37-38).

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in reaching her decision because she failed to explain her findings regarding Plaintiff's residual functional capacity as required by Social Security Ruling 96-8p; did not account for Plaintiff's moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace; failed to account for her severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the left shoulder and a tremor; failed to account for Plaintiff's fatigue; failed to properly access the medical opinions of Dr. Patrick McArthur, Dr. Jonathon Simons, and Ms. Marcia Lite-Braus, LPC; and failed to adequately consider Listing 12.04.[3] After careful review and consideration of the arguments presented, and for the reasons set forth hereinbelow, the undersigned is constrained to agree with Plaintiff that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's RFC because she failed to properly account for ...

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