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Miller v. Berryhill

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

February 2, 2018

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


          Dwane L. Tinsley, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before this Court is a complaint filed on December 20, 2016, by Christy Denise Miller, Claimant (ECF No. 2). On March 13, 2017, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint (ECF No. 7). Claimant did not file a Motion in Support of Judgement on the Pleadings and Defendant did not file a Brief in Support of the Defendant's Decision; therefore, the Proposed Findings and Recommendation will be made on the merits of the case.

         On August 2, 2012, Claimant filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) alleging disability beginning January 24, 2012. The Claim was denied initially on December 10, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on December 4, 2013. On January 31, 2014, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

         On June 25, 2015, an ALJ held a video hearing. Claimant appeared in Logan, West Virginia and the ALJ presided over the hearing from Charleston, West Virginia. On July 21, 2015, the ALJ denied Claimant's application for disability (Tr. at 10-25). On August 6, 2015, Claimant filed a request for review by the Appeals Council (AC) (Tr. at 6). On October 21, 2016, the AC 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” 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 1-2). The Order of Appeals Council dated October 21, 2016 (Tr. at 5), made the following additional evidence part of the record:

Exhibit 12E Representative Brief, September 21, 2015 (4 pages).
Exhibit 13F Attorney/Representative Supplied Evidence, Dolores D. Santamaria, M.D., July 25, 2014-August 31, 2015 (54 pages)

         On December 20, 2016, Claimant filed a complaint before the District Court.

         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 she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 24, 2012, and meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2017 (Tr. at 12). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the spine with a herniated disc of the lumbar spine status post laminectomy with history of cauda equine syndrome and obesity. (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 15). The ALJ then found that Claimant has a residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level except she should only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds (Tr. at 16-17). Claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, excessive vibration and pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poorly ventilated areas. Lastly, the ALJ found that Claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards including use of moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights (Tr. at 17). The ALJ held that Claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. at 24). The ALJ held that Claimant could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as: a non-postal mail clerk; a clerical assistant; and a merchandise marker (Tr. at 25) 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 ...

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