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Coleman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston

January 25, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Dwane L. Tinsley, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. By standing order, this case was referred to this United States Magistrate Judge to consider the pleadings and evidence, and to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition, all pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Presently pending before this Court are Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 14) and Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 15).

         Keith Kenard Coleman (hereinafter referred to as Claimant), applied for SSI on May 21, 2013, and DIB on May 23, 2013, alleging disability beginning February 28, 2012. The claims were denied initially on August 14, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 31, 2013. Thereafter, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 5, 2013. A video hearing was held on February 11, 2015, with the Claimant appearing in Huntington, West Virginia, and the ALJ presiding over the hearing from St. Louis, Missouri. On February 23, 2015, the ALJ denied Claimant's applications. On April 27, 2015, Claimant filed a request for review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council (AC) (Tr. At 8). On July 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review (Tr. at 1-5). The AC stated “We found no reason under our rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision” (Tr. at 1) and “In looking at your case, we considered the reasons you disagree with the decision and the additional evidence listed on the enclosed Order of Appeals Council” (Tr. at 2). The Order of Appeals Council dated July 29, 2016 (Tr. at 6), made the following additional evidence part of the record:

Exhibit 14E Representative Brief submitted by J.T. Meisel, Esq., dated April 27, 2015.
Exhibit 17F Medical Records from Marshall Health, dated February 9, 2015.

         Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5), a claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 774 (4th Cir. 1972). A disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Social Security Regulations establish a "sequential evaluation" for the adjudication of disability claims. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1520 (2016). If an individual is found "not disabled" at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. ' 404.1520(a). The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. ' 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. ' 404.1520(c). If a severe impairment is present, the third inquiry is whether such impairment meets or equals any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the Administrative Regulations No. 4. Id. ' 404.1520(d). If it does, the claimant is found disabled and awarded benefits. Id. If it does not, the fourth inquiry is whether the claimant's impairments prevent the performance of past relevant work. Id. ' 404.1520(e). By satisfying inquiry four, the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability. Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner, McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983), and leads to the fifth and final inquiry: whether the claimant is able to perform other forms of substantial gainful activity, considering claimant's remaining physical and mental capacities and claimant's age, education and prior work experience. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1520(f) (2016). The Commissioner must show two things: (1) that the claimant, considering claimant's age, education, work experience, skills and physical shortcomings, has the capacity to perform an alternative job, and (2) that this specific job exists in the national economy. McLamore v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 572, 574 (4th Cir. 1976).

         In this particular case, the ALJ determined that Claimant satisfied the first inquiry because he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 28, 2012, and meets the insured status requirements through March 31, 2016 (Tr. at 14). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the severe impairment of pulmonary nodules, status post left radial orchiectomy secondary to a diagnosis of a left testicular mass, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and hepatitis C. (Id.) At the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the level of severity of any listing in Appendix 1 (Tr. at 16). The ALJ then found that Claimant has a residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level except he cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, crouch, crawl or kneel. He must further avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, perfumes, finger nail polish, incense, candles and poor ventilation (Tr. at 16-17). The ALJ held that Claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. at 19). The ALJ held that Claimant could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as price marker, small parts assembler and house sitter (Tr. at 20). On this basis, benefits were denied. (Id.)

         Scope of Review

         The sole issue before this court is whether the final decision of the Commissioner denying the claim is supported by substantial evidence. In Blalock v. Richardson, substantial evidence was 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 a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.”

Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). Additionally, the Commissioner, not the court, is charged with resolving conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Nevertheless, the courts “must not abdicate their traditional functions; they cannot escape their duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974).

         A careful review of the record reveals the decision of the Commissioner in this case is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Claimant's Background

         Claimant was born on September 16, 1979. He last completed the ninth grade (Tr. at 36). On the date of the hearing Claimant was thirty-five years old (Tr. at 35).

         Medical Background

         The court has reviewed all evidence of record, including the medical evidence, and will discuss ...

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