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Rouse v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

October 10, 2019

Sandra Rouse, Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PAIGE J. GOSSETT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This social security matter is before the court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.). The plaintiff, Sandra Rouse, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the defendant, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and the case remanded.

         SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY GENERALLY

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(5) and § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i), 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), 416.905(a); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773 (4th Cir. 1973). The regulations require the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to consider, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment;
(3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”), and is thus presumptively disabled;
(4) whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work; and
(5) whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from doing any other kind of work.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).[2] If the ALJ can make a determination that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. Id.

         Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that she is unable to return to her past relevant work because of her impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(B); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981); Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983).

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         In July 2010, Rouse applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning October 30, 2009. Rouse's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on February 16, 2012, at which Rouse, who was represented by Melissa L. Franklin, Esquire, appeared and testified. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on April 3, 2012 finding that Rouse was not disabled. (Tr. 12-24.) The Appeals Council denied Rouse's request for review, and Rouse appealed to the United States District Court. The district court reversed the ALJ's April 3, 2012 decision and remanded Rouse's claim for the ALJ to clarify the weight given to certain treating sources' medical opinions. (Tr. 1095-99.) The Appeals Council issued an order on November 12, 2014 remanding the matter for further proceedings consistent with the order of the district court. (Tr. 1120.) A second hearing was held on May 5, 2015, at which Rouse appeared and testified and continued to be represented by Melissa L. Franklin Hill, Esquire. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on July 21, 2015 finding that Rouse was not disabled from October 30, 2009 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 1008-24.)

         Rouse was born in 1974 and was thirty-five years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. She has a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a manager and cashier at a gas station. (Tr. 155-56.) Rouse alleged disability due to diabetes; bad vision; bad nerves in the hands, arms, legs, and feet; and a bad heart. (Tr. 154.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Rouse had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 30, 2009. The ALJ also determined that Rouse's history of diabetes mellitus; asthma; obesity; coronary artery disease, status post myocardial infarction; and depression were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that Rouse 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 (the “Listings”). The ALJ found, after consideration of the entire record, that Rouse retained the residual functional capacity to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with these additional limitations: avoid concentrated exposure to heat, cold, dangerous heights, or hazardous equipment; avoid odors, dust, gases, or fumes; and limited to simple, ...

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