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Holbrooks v. Colvin

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

January 26, 2015

Thomas Lucious Holbrooks, 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.[1] For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 4, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI alleging an onset of disability date of March 31, 2007.[2] [R. 154-58.] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration"). [R. 96-97, 109-10.] Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and, on December 20, 2011, ALJ Francis W. Williams conducted a de novo hearing on Plaintiff's claims. [R. 39-95.]

The ALJ issued a decision on March 1, 2012, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act ("the Act"). [R. 18-38.] At Step 1, [3] the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 4, 2009, the application date. [R. 23, Findings 1.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative disc disease and substance abuse with narcotic dependency. [R. 23, Finding 2.] 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 3.] The ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.00, 12.04, and 12.09. [ 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, based on all of the impairments, including the substance use disorders, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled work with restrictions that require lifting and/or carrying no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; no more than occasional stooping, twisting, crouching, kneeling, climbing stairs/ramps, crawling, and balancing; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and missing an average of 4 days of work a month.

[R. 25, Finding 4.] Based on this RFC, at Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a heavy equipment operator, farm carpenter, a property attendant, and a dump truck driver. [R. 29, Finding 5.] Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC based on all of Plaintiff's impairments, including the substance use disorders, the ALJ concluded that there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. [R. 29, Finding 9.]

The ALJ further concluded, however, that if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, he would continue to have a severe impairment of mild degenerative disc disease. [R. 30, Finding 10.] The ALJ also found that, if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would retain the RFC to

perform work with restrictions that require lifting and/or carrying no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; no more than occasional stooping, twisting, crouching, kneeling, climbing stairs/ramps, crawling, and balancing; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.

[R. 31, Finding 12.] The ALJ also found that, even if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, he would continue to be unable to perform past relevant work. [R. 32, Finding 13.] However, if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [R. 32-33, Finding 15.] The ALJ found that Plaintiff's substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because Plaintiff would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use; and, because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of the decision. [R. 33, Finding 16.] The ALJ, thus, declined to award SSI benefits. [R. 34.]

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 August 15, 2013. [Doc. 1.]

THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

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

1. failing to properly assess the opinion evidence of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Drs. Ayanna Swinton-Jamison and Floyd Cribbs; and,
2. failing to adequately explain his RFC determination.

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

1. properly discounted the treating source opinions of record, assuming the absence of substance abuse, and/or in light of inconsistent objective laboratory evidence; and,
2. articulated RFC findings that are based on substantial evidence.

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 Commissioner so long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Bird v. Comm'r, 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. Comm'r, 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 disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). "Disability" is defined as:

the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 consecutive months.

Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

I. The Five Step Evaluation

To facilitate uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, federal regulations have reduced the statutory definition of disability to a series of five sequential questions. See, e.g., Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 461 n.2 (1983) (noting a "need for efficiency" in considering disability claims). The ALJ must consider whether (1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals an impairment included in the Administration's Official Listings of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant from having substantial gainful employment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Through the fourth step, the burden of production and proof is on the claimant. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983). The claimant must prove disability on or before the last day of her insured status to receive disability benefits. Everett v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 412 F.2d 842, 843 (4th Cir. 1969). If the inquiry reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Grant, 699 F.2d at 191. If at any step of the evaluation the ALJ can find an individual is disabled or not disabled, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981).

A. Substantial Gainful Activity

"Substantial gainful activity" must be both substantial-involves doing significant physical or mental activities, 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a)-and gainful-done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized, id. § 416.972(b). If an individual has earnings from employment or self-employment above a specific level set out in the regulations, he is generally presumed to be able to engage in substantial gainful activity. Id. § 416.974-.975.

B. Severe Impairment

An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. See id. § 416.921. When determining whether a claimant's physical and mental impairments are sufficiently severe, the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(B), 1382c(a)(3)(G). The ALJ must evaluate a disability claimant as a whole person and not in the abstract, having several hypothetical and isolated illnesses. Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 49-50 (4th Cir. 1989) (stating that, when evaluating the effect of a number of impairments on a disability claimant, "the [Commissioner] must consider the combined effect of a claimant's impairments and not fragmentize them"). Accordingly, the ALJ must make specific and well-articulated findings as to the effect of a combination of impairments when determining whether an individual is disabled. Id. at 50 ("As a corollary to this rule, the ALJ must adequately explain his or her evaluation of the combined effects of the impairments."). If the ALJ finds a combination of impairments to be severe, "the combined impact of the impairments shall be considered throughout the disability determination process." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(B), 1382c(a)(3)(G).

C. Meets or Equals an Impairment Listed in the Listings of Impairments

If a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1 and meets the duration requirement found at 20 C.F.R. § 416.909, the ALJ will find the claimant disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience.[5] 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

D. Past Relevant Work

The assessment of a claimant's ability to perform past relevant work "reflect[s] the statute's focus on the functional capacity retained by the claimant." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1204 (4th Cir. 1995). At this step of the evaluation, the ALJ compares the claimant's residual functional capacity[6] with the physical and mental demands of the kind of work he has done in the past to determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to do his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b).

E. Other Work

As previously stated, once the ALJ finds that a claimant cannot return to her prior work, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant could perform other work that exists in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f)-(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992). To meet this burden, the Commissioner may sometimes rely exclusively on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "grids"). Exclusive reliance on the "grids" is appropriate where the claimant suffers primarily from an exertional impairment, without significant nonexertional factors.[7] 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 200.00(e); Gory v. Schweiker, 712 F.2d 929, 930-31 (4th Cir. 1983) (stating that exclusive reliance on the grids is appropriate in cases involving exertional limitations). When a claimant suffers from both exertional and nonexertional limitations, the grids may serve only as guidelines. Gory, 712 F.2d at 931. In such a case, the Commissioner must use a vocational expert to establish the claimant's ability to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.969a; see Walker, 889 F.2d at 49-50 ("Because we have found that the grids cannot be relied upon to show conclusively that claimant is not disabled, when the case is remanded it will be incumbent upon the [Commissioner] to prove by expert vocational testimony that despite the combination of exertional and nonexertional impairments, the claimant retains the ability to perform specific jobs which exist in the national economy."). The purpose of using a vocational expert is "to assist the ALJ in determining whether there is work available in the national economy which this particular claimant can perform." Walker, 889 F.2d at 50. For the vocational expert's testimony to be relevant, "it must be based upon a consideration of all other evidence in the record, ... and it must be in response to proper hypothetical questions which fairly set out all of claimant's impairments." Id. (citations omitted).

II. Developing the Record

The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record. See Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir. 1986). The ALJ is required to inquire fully into each relevant issue. Snyder, 307 F.2d at 520. The performance of this duty is particularly important when a claimant appears without counsel. Marsh v. Harris, 632 F.2d 296, 299 (4th Cir. 1980). In such circumstances, "the ALJ should scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts, ... being especially diligent in ...


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