Earles v. Berryhill, Civil Action No. 6:17-3045-MGL-KFM

Decision Date19 November 2018
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 6:17-3045-MGL-KFM
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
PartiesTina W. Earles, Plaintiff, v. Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

This case is before the court for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.), concerning the disposition of Social Security cases in this District, and Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B).1

The plaintiff brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.


The plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits on July 24, 2014. In both applications, the plaintiff alleged that she became unable to work on September 30, 2013. She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to June 1, 2014 (Tr. 195). Both applications were denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. On December 22, 2014, the plaintiff requested a hearing. The administrative law judge ("ALJ"), before whomthe plaintiff and Carey A. Washington, an impartial vocational expert, appeared on December 16, 2016, considered the case de novo, and on January 13, 2017, found that the plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, as amended (Tr. 20-29). The ALJ's finding became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review on September 28, 2017 (Tr. 1-4). The plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review.

In making the determination that the plaintiff is not entitled to benefits, the Commissioner has adopted the following findings of the ALJ:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R §§ 404.1571 et seq., 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: spinal disorder, left shoulder impingement status post August 2016 surgery, right trochanteric bursitis, left knee synovitis status post September 2013 surgery, meralgia paresthetica, and obesity (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with additional functional limitations. The claimant can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, kneel, and crouch. She can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, and crawl. She can frequently overhead reach bilaterally within the exertional level. Handling and fingering can be performed frequently on the non-dominant left. She can occasionally be exposed to hazards associated with unprotected, dangerous machinery or unprotected heights. She can maintain concentration, persistence, and pace to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks, in a low stress work environment (defined as being free of fast-paced or team-dependent production requirements), involving simple work-related decisions, occasional independent judgment skills, and occasional workplace changes.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on February 15, 1970, and was 44 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564, 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled" whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2014, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g)).

The only issues before the court are whether proper legal standards were applied and whether the final decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.


Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(5) and § 1382c(a)(3)(A), (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 expectedto 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).

To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Social Security Act has by regulation reduced the statutory definition of "disability" to a series of five sequential questions. An examiner must consider whether the claimant (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or medically equals an impairment contained in the Listing of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, (4) can perform his past relevant work, and (5) can perform other work. Id. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

A claimant must make a prima facie case of disability by showing he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983). Once an individual has established a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the plaintiff can perform alternative work and that such work exists in the national economy. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Commissioner may carry this burden by obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. Id. at 192.

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). "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." Id. In reviewing the evidence, the court may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Id. Consequently, even if the courtdisagrees with Commissioner's decision, the court must uphold it if it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).


The plaintiff was 44 years old on her amended alleged disability onset date (June 1, 2014) and 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision (January 13, 2017). She completed high school (Tr. 40). She had past relevant work as a medical records clerk, sales representative, and receptionist (T. 28, 57)

On July 5, 2013, the plaintiff sought treatment from Kim Bean, NP, at Carolina Medical Affiliates in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for left knee issues. At that time, the plaintiff complained of occasional swelling of the knee with intermittent pain. On examination, the plaintiff had tenderness with pain on range of motion testing and positive crepitus in the left knee (Tr. 363-65).

On July 19, 2013, the plaintiff saw Michael W. Funderburk, M.D., at Orthopaedic Associates. During the examination, the plaintiff had swelling medially with tender range of motion that was painful over the medial and anterior joint line. At that time, imaging was performed that indicated a tear to the medial meniscus (Tr. 285-87). During a followup on July 24, 2013, Chris Cutshall, M.D., the plaintiff's primary care physician, noted that the plaintiff had a joint effusion in the left lower extremity (Tr. 367). During an August 2013 followup with Dr. Funderburk, the swelling and edema in the left knee were noted to have increased, and Dr. Funderburk suggested that the plaintiff have an injection. Dr. Funderburk performed the injection on September 9, 2013 (Tr. 279-84). On September 27, 2013, the plaintiff underwent an arthroscopy of the left knee with extensive synovectomy and partial medial meniscectomy of the posterior horn (Tr. 261-62). Following surgery, she underwent a course of physical therapy from September 30, 2013, until January 14, 2014 (Tr. 291-304). On October 28, 2013, the plaintiff was noted to have swellingposteromedially with painful deep flexion range of motion (Tr. 269-71). Her symptoms persisted into November 2013 (Tr. 268).

On February 26, 2014, the plaintiff...

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