United States District Court, District of South Carolina
Richard Mark Gergel, United States District Judge
Plaintiff has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). In accord with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 DSC, this matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation on November 19, 2014, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Dkt. No. 22). Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation and the Commissioner filed a reply. (Dkt. Nos. 24, 25). As more fully set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remanded for further action consistent with this order.
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v, Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which specific objection is made. The Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. The Act provides that the "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance." Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court's findings of fact for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157 (4th Cir. 1971).
Although the federal court's review role is a limited one, "it does not follow, however, that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative action." Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Further, the Commissioner's findings of fact are not binding if they were based upon the application of an improper legal standard. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 519 (4th Cir. 1987).
The Commissioner, in passing upon an application for disability benefits, is required to undertake a five-step sequential process. At Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful employment, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Two, which involves a determination whether the claimant has any "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). This is not a particularly burdensome showing by a claimant since even "a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities which would have more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work" satisfies this requirement. SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 568656 (1985). The Commissioner has the obligation as a threshold matter to address each impairment of the claimant and determine whether each impairment is severe or non-severe. Solesbee v. Astrue, C.A. No. 2:10-1882, 2011 WL 5101531 at *4-5 (D.S.C. 2011).
If the claimant has one or more severe impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Three, which involves a determination of whether any impairment of the claimant satisfies any one of a designated list of impairments that would automatically render the claimant disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Further, even if a claimant's condition does not meet all of the requirements of a listing, a claimant may be declared disabled at Step Three if she is able to show that another impairment or combination of impairments are the medical equivalent of the listed impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 423(c)(2)(b); Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(b).
If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Four, which involves an assessment of the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). This requires assessment of the claimant's ability "to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work." Id. § 404.1545(a)(4). In determining the claimant's RFC, the Commissioner "must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions" and provide a narrative "describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts ... and nonmedical evidence." SSR 96-8P, 61 Fed. Reg. 34474, 34475, 34478 (July 2, 1996).
Once the claimant's RFC is determined, the Commissioner must assess whether the claimant can do his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(4)(iv), 1545(a)(5)(i). If the claimant, notwithstanding the RFC determination, can still perform his past relevant work, he is deemed not to be disabled. If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner then proceeds to Step Five to determine if there is other available work in the national economy he can perform in light of the RFC determination. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
Under the regulations of the Social Security Administration, the Commissioner is obligated to consider all medical evidence and the opinions of medical sources, including treating physicians. Id, § 404.1545. The regulation, known as the "Treating Physician Rule, " imposes a duty on the Commissioner to "evaluate every medical opinion we receive." Id. § 404.1527(c). The Commissioner "[generally ... give[s] more weight to opinions from ... treating sources" based on the view that "these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations." Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). Further, the Commissioner "[g]enerally ... give[s] more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined [the claimant] than to the opinion of a source who has not examined [the claimant]." Id. § 404.1527(c)(1).
Under some circumstances, the opinions of the treating physicians are to be accorded controlling weight. Even where the opinions of the treating physicians of the claimant are not accorded controlling weight, the Commissioner is obligated to weigh those opinions in light of a broad range of specifically identified factors, including the examining relationship, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinions in the medical record, consistency, and whether the treating physician is a specialist. Id §§ 404.1527(c)(l)-(5). The Commissioner is obligated to weigh the findings and opinions of treating physicians and to give "good reasons" in the written decision for the weight given to a treating source's opinions. SSR 96-2P, 61 Fed. Reg. 34490, 34492 (July 2, 1996).
Plaintiff was 39 years of age at the time she applied for Social Security disability benefits in December 2011. The record established that she suffered severe pelvic injuries when she was hit by an automobile when she was 15 years of age. As she aged, she began to complain of progressively worsening chronic pain in her lower back and legs. Transcript of Record ("Tr.") 411. Plaintiff reported that she had been forced to quit work because she was unable to stand or sit for prolonged periods of time. Tr. 486. This ...