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Browning v. Berryhill

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

November 9, 2018

LOUIE BROWNING, 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 is Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 10), Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 12) and Plaintiff's Reply to Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 13). This is an action seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Claimant's application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.

         Background

         Claimant, Louie Browning, filed an application for DIB on July 9, 2014. Claimant alleged disability beginning June 3, 2014. The claim was denied initially on October 15, 2014, and upon reconsideration on February 25, 2015. Claimant filed a request for hearing on March 25, 2015. A video hearing was held on January 17, 2017. Claimant appeared in Logan, West Virginia, and the Administrative Law Judge presided over the hearing from Charleston, West Virginia. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Claimant's application on February 3, 2017. On March 31, 2017, Claimant sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on August 29, 2017 (Tr. at 1-6). Subsequently, on October 27, 2017, Claimant filed the present complaint seeking judicial review of the administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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, 416.920 (2017). If an individual is found "not disabled" at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920. The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920. If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920. 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), 416.920. 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), 416.920. 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), 416.920 (2017). 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).

         When a claimant alleges a mental impairment, the Social Security Administration “must follow a special technique at every level in the administrative review process.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(a) and 416.920a(a). First, the SSA evaluates the claimant's pertinent symptoms, signs and laboratory findings to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment and documents its findings if the claimant is determined to have such an impairment. Second, the SSA rates and documents the degree of functional limitation resulting from the impairment according to criteria as specified in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c) and 416.920a(c). Those sections provide as follows:

(c) Rating the degree of functional limitation.
(1) Assessment of functional limitations is a complex and highly individualized process that requires us to consider multiple issues and all relevant evidence to obtain a longitudinal picture of your overall degree of functional limitation. We will consider all relevant and available clinical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of your symptoms, and how your functioning may be affected by factors including, but not limited to, chronic mental disorders, structured settings, medication and other treatment.
(2) We will rate the degree of your functional limitation based on the extent to which your impairment(s) interferes with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. Thus, we will consider such factors as the quality and level of your overall functional performance, any episodic limitations, the amount of supervision or assistance you require, and the settings in which you are able to function. See 12.00C through 12.00H of the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1 to this subpart for more information about the factors we consider when we rate the degree of your functional limitation.
(3) We have identified four broad functional areas in which we will rate the degree of your functional limitation:
Activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. See 12.00C of the Listings of Impairments.
(4) When we rate the degree of limitation in the first three functional areas (activities of daily living, social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace), we will use the following five-point scale: None, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme. When we rate the degree of limitation in the fourth functional area (episodes of decompensation), we will use the following four-point scale: None, one or two, three, four or more. The last point on ...

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