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Franklin v. Saul

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

September 19, 2019

Ben Franklin, Jr., Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This case is before the court for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil 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).[1]

         The 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 denying his claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.


         The plaintiff initially filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) in 2003. The application was denied and never appealed (Tr. 208-09). The plaintiff filed the current application for DIB on April 4, 2014, alleging that he became unable to work on March 18, 2010. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On January 16, 2015, the plaintiff requested a hearing. On April 27, 2017, an administrative hearing was held at which the plaintiff, along with his attorney, and Tonetta Watson-Coleman, an impartial vocational expert, appeared and testified in North Charleston, South Carolina. On October 12, 2017, the ALJ considered the case de novo and found that the plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, as amended (Tr. 13-26). The ALJ's finding became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review on August 14, 2018 (Tr. 1-3). The plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review.

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

(1) The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2015.
(2) The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of March 18, 2010 through his date last insured of December 31, 2015 (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.).
(3) Through the date last insured, the claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, status post cervical and lumbar fusions and status post spinal stimulator (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
(4) Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567 (a). The claimant was capable of lifting and/or carrying 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. He was capable of standing and/or walking at least 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and sitting about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. He could never climb ladders, ropes. or scaffolds, stoop, crouch or crawl; he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, and kneel. He had to avoid even moderate exposure to workplace hazards. While remaining at the workstation, he could not stand more than 15 minutes continuously and could not sit more than 10 minutes continuously.
(6) Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on April 11, 1983, and was 32 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the date last insured (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. § 404.1564).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 18, 2010, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2015, the date last insured (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         The only issues before the court are whether proper legal standards were applied and whether the final decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (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).

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Social Security 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 that meets or medically equals an impairment contained in the Listing of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, (4) can perform his past relevant work, and (5) can perform other work. Id. § 404.1520. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         A claimant must make a prima facie case of disability by showing he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983). Once an individual has established a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the plaintiff can perform alternative work and that such work exists in the national economy. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Id. at 192.

         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). “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.” Id. 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].” Id. Consequently, even if the court disagrees with Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).


         The plaintiff was 26 years old on his alleged disability onset date (March 18, 2010) and 32 years old on the date last insured (December 31, 2015). He has a high school education and past relevant work as a ferry operator, trade specialist, and pressure washer (Tr. 25, 213).

         On March 18, 2010, the plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He was seen at Georgetown Memorial Hospital emergency room and complained of neck pain, pain in his entire back, and left knee pain. On examination, his neck was supple and mildly tender in the cervical paravertebral muscles. He had mild tenderness of the tibial tubercle, primarily left knee anteriorly, with minimal swelling. He had full extension and was able to flex 30 degrees with pain. His back had mild diffusely tender paravertebral muscles in the thoracic and lumbar spine. His pelvis was mildly tender in the low back. He was placed on crutches and given a left knee immobilizer and prescription for Motrin 800 mg. He was diagnosed with neck and back pain and left knee contusion. Cervical spine x-ray showed minimal degenerative changes. There were no fractures or subluxations, but some anterior spurring was visible at ¶ 5-6. No. abnormal prevertebral soft tissue swelling was noted. X-ray of the left knee, thoracic spine, and lumbar spine were negative. The alignment of his spine was “within normal limits” and “no abnormalities of the paravertebral shadows [were] noted” (Tr. 347-53).

         On March 29, 2010, the plaintiff followed up at Doctors Care with continued head and lower back pain that was not helped by medication. He was administered a Solu-Medrol injection and continued with knee stabilizer. He was restricted to no lifting or carrying more than ten pounds, no driving or operation of hazardous machinery, no ladder climbing or ...

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