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Staats v. Berryhill

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

March 2, 2018

MELISSA J. STAATS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

          Dwane L. Tinsley, United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before this Court are Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 7) and Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 8).

         Background

         On April 26, 2013, Claimant filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) alleging disability beginning October 15, 2008. The Claim was denied initially on August 13, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on October 23, 2013. On December 10, 2013, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On May 19, 2015, an ALJ held a video hearing. Claimant appeared in Parkersburg, West Virginia, while the ALJ presided over the hearing from Charleston, West Virginia. On June 8, 2015, the ALJ denied Claimant's application for disability (Tr. at 10-26). On July 7, 2015, Claimant filed a request for review by the Appeals Council (AC) (Tr. at 31-36). On September 7, 2016, the AC denied Claimant's request for review (Tr. at 1-5). On November 4, 2016, Claimant filed a complaint before the District Court (ECF No. 1).

         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 October 15, 2008, and meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2013 (Tr. at 12). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the severe impairment of osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus, obesity, fibromyalgia, coronary artery disease, left rotator cuff tear, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine and carpal tunnel syndrome. (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 sedentary exertional level except she should never engage in the climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally engage in other postural maneuvers such as climbing ramps and/or stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling. This individual could frequently engage in reaching of the non-dominant left upper extremity. Further, this individual could frequently engage in bilateral handling, fingering and feeling. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, excessive vibrations and workplace hazards (Tr. at 17). The ALJ held that Claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work through the date last insured (Tr. at 24). The ALJ held that Claimant could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as surveillance systems monitor, document preparation and credit clerk (Tr. at 25). On this basis, benefits were denied (Tr. at 25-26).

         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 February 28, 1969 (Tr. at 44). At the time of the hearing, she was married and lived with her husband and two sons (Tr. at 45). Claimant's two sons were ages 18 and 20. (Id.) Claimant has a high school education and was certified as an Infant Toddler Specialist for a prior position working at a day care (Tr. at 47). Claimant has a ...


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