United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
Scott O. Hall, Plaintiff,
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 Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be reversed and remanded for administrative action consistent with this recommendation, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
On December 23, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging an onset of disability date of December 23, 2010. [R. 20.] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration [R. 67-70, 65], by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration"). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and, on May 7, 2012, ALJ Sarah B. Stewart conducted a de novo hearing on Plaintiff's claims. [R. 35-62.]
The ALJ issued a decision on June 19, 2012, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). [R. 20-30.] At Step 1,  the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2013, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 23, 2010, the amended alleged onset date. [R. 22, Findings 1 and 2.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gouty arthritis, anxiety, and depression. [R. 22, Finding 3.] The ALJ also found Plaintiff had non-severe impairments of history of drug abuse, hypertension, GERD, umbilical hernia, and somatoform disorder. [R. 23.] During the RFC discussion, the ALJ mentioned that Plaintiff is impaired by obesity, which the ALJ described as severe obesity [R. 26] when discussing Plaintiff's respiratory ailments, but as mild obesity [R. 27] when discussing Plaintiff's lower extremity pain. 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. 23-25, Finding 4.] The ALJ specifically considered Listings 3.02, 3.03, 14.09, 12.04, 12.06 and 12.07. [ 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). The claimant has the sedentary work capacity to lift less than ten pounds occasionally and to sit for six of eight hours and walk or stand for two of eight hours. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, can never balance, occasionally stoop, and never kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant must avoid exposure to extreme cold and extreme heat, as well as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poorly ventilated areas, and chemicals. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work environment that is free of fast-paced work and that involves only simple work-related decisions, with few if any workplace changes.
[R. 25, Finding 5.] Based on this RFC, at Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a machine operator, garbage collector, order puller, and tipper operator. [R. 29, Finding 6.] Considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [R. 29, Finding 10.] Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from December 23, 2010, through the date of the decision. [R. 30, Finding 11.]
Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, but the Council declined review. [R. 1-6.] Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on September 16, 2013. [Doc. 1.]
THE PARTIES' POSITIONS
Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and alleges the ALJ erred by
(1) failing to appoint a medical expert specializing in pulmonary disease to consider whether Plaintiff meets Listing 3.02A for chronic pulmonary insufficiency due to discrepancies in the record regarding Plaintiff's actual height and by failing to find that Plaintiff's pulmonary impairment met Listing 3.02A on March 24, 2011;
(2) failing to state what weight was given to the opinion of Dr. Gordon Early ("Dr. Early") and rejecting portions of his opinion without explanation;
(3) rejecting Plaintiff's credibility based on erroneous findings and improperly discrediting his testimony for his failing to obtain medical treatment without considering his explanation for the lack of treatment-financial constraints; and
(4) failing to properly consider the side effects of Plaintiff's medications on his ability to work.
Plaintiff requests an outright reversal of the Commissioner's decision and an award of disability benefits, or, in the alternative, a remand of this case before a new ALJ.
The Commissioner, on the other hand, contends the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ
(1) properly determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any listed impairment;
(2) properly evaluated Dr. Early's opinion;
(3) adequately explained his assessment of Plaintiff's credibility and properly took into account Plaintiff's failure to seek regular treatment; and
(4) adequately took into account Plaintiff's reports of "fatigue and drowsiness" as a result of his medications.
Accordingly, the Commissioner requests that the Court affirm the ALJ's decision.
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 ...