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Greene v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

October 25, 2019

Esther Bennett Greene, Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PAIGE J. GOSSET 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, Esther Bennett Greene, 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 remanded for further consideration as explained below.

         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 November 2014, Greene applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2014. Greene's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A video hearing was held on June 8, 2017, at which Greene appeared and testified and was represented by Natasha M. Hanna, Esquire. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on September 22, 2017, concluding that Greene was not disabled from March 1, 2014 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 10-19.)

         Greene was born in 1961 and was fifty-two 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 pharmacy clerk. (Tr. 247.) Greene alleged disability due to diabetes, Hepatitis C, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. (Tr. 246.)

         In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Greene had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 1, 2014. The ALJ also determined that Greene's diabetes mellitus with retinopathy, cataracts, and Hepatitis C were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that Greene did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). The ALJ found, after consideration of the entire record, that Greene retained the residual functional capacity to

perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). Light exertional work is described by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration as requiring lifting/carrying of up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and standing, walking, and sitting for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant cannot climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, but she can occasionally climb ramps/stairs and reach overhead bilaterally. She must avoid work that requires binocular vision, working at unprotected heights, and working around hazardous machinery. Additionally, she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold or heat.

(Tr. 14.) The ALJ found that Greene was capable of performing past relevant work as a pharmacy technician, a cosmetologist, and a teacher's aide, and that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Greene's residual functional capacity. Therefore, the ALJ found that Greene was not disabled from March 1, 2014 through the date of the decision.

         The Appeals Council denied Greene's request for review on August 29, 2018, thereby making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) This action followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court may review only whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). “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.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; see also Pearsonv. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). In reviewing the evidence, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute ...


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