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Butler v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

July 23, 2014

Bernice Butler, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

JACQUELYN D. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C. Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claim for Social Security Income ("SSI") benefits. For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be reversed and remanded.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On September 30, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI [R. 19], alleging an onset of disability date of January 1, 2006.[1] [ Id. ] Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on April 27, 2009 [R.81-84], and on reconsideration on May 24, 2010 [R. 90], by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration"). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") and on August 23, 2011, ALJ E. Lee Morgan conducted a de novo hearing on Plaintiff's claims.[2] [R. 101-136.]

The ALJ issued a decision on November 23, 2011, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). [R. 19-31.] At Step 1, [3] the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 30, 2008, the application date. [R. 21, Finding 1.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hypertension, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, anxiety and major depressive disorder. [R. 21, Finding 2.] The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had a nonsevere impairment of a heart murmur. [R. 22.] At Step 3, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the criteria of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [R. 22-23, Finding 3.] The ALJ specifically considered Listing 12.04 and Listing 12.06. [ Id. ]

Before addressing Step 4, Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity ("RFC"):

I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform simple routine unskilled sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), which is work that involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time; involves sitting, but a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties; with no ongoing interaction with the public or waiting on customers; and no manipulative, visual or communicative limitations.

[R. 23, Finding 4.] Based on this RFC, at Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as an assembler, production line worker, companion or cashier. [R. 30, Finding 5.] Considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, however, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. [R. 30, Finding 9.] Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from September 30, 2008, through the date of the decision. [R. 31, Finding 10.] The ALJ, thus, declined to award SSI benefits.

Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, but the Council declined review. [R. 1-4.] Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on April 23, 2013. [Doc. 1.]

THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and claims the ALJ erred by

(1) failing to explain why Plaintiff was not disabled under the medical and vocational guidelines [Doc. 16 at 20];
(2) failing to properly assess the treating physicians' opinions [ id. at 27]; and
(3) failing to properly assess Plaintiff's credibility [ id. at 30].

The Commissioner, on the other hand, contends the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ

(1) properly found that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal a listing [Doc. 17 at 5];
(2) properly weighed the treating physicians' opinions [ id. at 7];
(3) properly found that Plaintiff's testimony lacked credibility [ id. at 10].

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (citing Woolridge v. Celebrezze, 214 F.Supp. 686, 687 (S.D. W.Va. 1963)) ("Substantial evidence, it has been held, is 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.'").

Where conflicting evidence "allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ), " not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision). Thus, it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner so long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Bird v. Commissioner, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012); Laws, 368 F.2d at 642; Snyder v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 518, 520 (4th Cir. 1962).

The reviewing court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review, however, if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980); see also Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994). Where the Commissioner's decision "is in clear disregard of the overwhelming weight of the evidence, Congress has empowered the courts to modify or reverse the [Commissioner's] decision with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.'" Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1158 (4th Cir. 1971) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Remand is unnecessary where "the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).

The court may remand a case to the Commissioner for a rehearing under sentence four or sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Sargent v. Sullivan, 941 F.2d 1207 (4th Cir. 1991) (unpublished table decision). To remand under sentence four, the reviewing court must find either that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the Commissioner incorrectly applied the law relevant to the disability claim. See, e.g., Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1090-91 (11th Cir. 1996) (holding remand was appropriate where the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record of the claimant's residual functional capacity); Brehem v. Harris, 621 F.2d 688, 690 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding remand was appropriate where record was insufficient to affirm but was also insufficient for court to find the claimant disabled). Where the court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner's decision, a remand under sentence four is usually the proper course to allow the Commissioner to explain the basis for the decision or for additional investigation. See Radford v. Commissioner, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985); see also Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1181-82 (4th Cir. 1986) (remanding case where decision of ALJ contained "a gap in its reasoning" because ALJ did not say he was discounting testimony or why); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984) (remanding case where neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council indicated the weight given to relevant evidence). On remand under sentence four, the ALJ should review the case on a complete record, including any new material evidence. See Smith, 782 F.2d at 1182 ("The [Commissioner] and the claimant may produce further evidence on remand."). After a remand under sentence four, the court enters a final and immediately appealable judgment and then loses jurisdiction. Sargent, 941 F.2d 1207 (citing Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 102 (1991)).

In contrast, sentence six provides:

The court may... at any time order additional evidence to be taken before the Commissioner of Social Security, but only upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding....

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A reviewing court may remand a case to the Commissioner on the basis of new evidence only if four prerequisites are met: (1) the evidence is relevant to the determination of disability at the time the application was first filed; (2) the evidence is material to the extent that the Commissioner's decision might reasonably have been different had the new evidence been before him; (3) there is good cause for the claimant's failure to submit the evidence when the claim was before the Commissioner; and (4) the claimant made at least a general showing of the nature of the new evidence to the reviewing court. Borders v. Heckler, 777 F.2d 954, 955 (4th Cir. 1985) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Mitchell v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 185, 188 (4th Cir. 1983); Sims v. Harris, 631 F.2d 26, 28 (4th Cir. 1980); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)), superseded by amendment to statute, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), as recognized in Wilkins v. Sec'y, Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 925 F.2d 769, 774 (4th Cir. 1991).[4] With remand under sentence six, the parties must return to the court after remand to file modified findings of fact. Melkonyan, 501 U.S. at 98. The reviewing court retains jurisdiction pending remand and does not enter a final judgment until after the completion of remand proceedings. See Allen v. Chater, 67 F.3d 293 (4th Cir. 1995) (unpublished table decision) (holding that an order remanding a claim for Social Security benefits pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is not a final order).

APPLICABLE LAW

The Act provides that disability benefits shall be available to those persons insured for benefits, who are not of retirement age, who properly apply, and who are under a ...


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