United States District Court, D. South Carolina
Marion P. Binnarr, Jr., Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Richard Mark Gergel, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). 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 ("R & R") on December 10, 2015, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Dkt. No. 22). Plaintiff timely filed objections to the R & R, and the Commissioner filed a response. (Dkt. No. 24, 25). For reasons set forth below, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands the matter to the agency for further action consistent with this decision.
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.2d 541, 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).
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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). Known popularly as the "Treating Physician Rule, " the regulation requires the Commissioner to "evaluate every medical opinion we receive." Id. § 404.1527(c). Special consideration is to be given to the opinions of treating physicians of the claimant, 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).
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 all medical opinions in light of a broad range of factors, including the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, length of treatment, nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinions in the medical record, consistency, and whether the treating physician was a specialist. Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(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, 1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996). Further, since the Commissioner recognizes that the non-examining expert has "no treating or examining relationship" with the claimant, she pledges to consider their supporting explanations for their opinions and "the degree to which these opinions consider all of the pertinent evidence in your claim, including opinions of treating and examining sources." § 404.1527(c)(3).
The Plaintiff has a well-documented history of multiple severe physical and mental impairments, with the most significant being degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis which have produced a long-term diagnosis of chronic pain and daily treatment with multiple doses of opioid medications. The dispute in this matter is a relatively narrow one. The Commissioner asserts that Plaintiffs significant physical and mental impairments substantially limit his ability to function normally in the workplace but he still retains the residual functional capacity for light work. Tr. 23-26. Plaintiff asserts that his severe impairments are more limiting and prevent him from performing even at the level of light work, which due to his age would render him disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1568(d)(4).
Plaintiff alleges that the Commissioner erred in failing to give proper weight to the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Anthony Glaser. Plaintiff began his treatment with Dr. Glaser in December 2008, and was then evaluated for "chronic back and neck pain, with muscle spasms in the posterior aspects of both legs." Dr. Glaser noted in that initial evaluation a significant finding from a 2006 MR! of Plaintiff s lumbar spine: a disc protrusion with contact with the "exiting L4 nerve root." Tr. 335-36. Dr. Glaser prescribed narcotic pain medications to provide Plaintiff relief from his chronic pain. Tr. 336.
When Plaintiff began his treatment with Dr. Glaser, he was still attempting, when able, to continue his work in construction. When he was out of work, Plaintiff was able to manage his pain with several doses of pain medications daily. However, when Plaintiff was attempting to work, he required 4-5 doses of narcotic pain medications per day, and he had complaints of severe pain in his neck, shoulders, back and legs. Tr. 327, 329, 331, 335. Plaintiff was documented in Dr. Glaser's records in 2010 and early 2011 expressing a desire to continue working but had "to stop every job he starts due to pain." Tr. 323, 325, 327, The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 6, 2010. Tr. 21.
Plaintiffs already compromised condition was complicated by a motorcycle accident on June 4, 2011, when he was struck by an automobile with "moderate impact velocity." Tr. 313. Dr. Glaser noted in his June 30, 2011 office visit that Plaintiff now had throbbing pain and his baseline pain had worsened since the accident. Tr. 319. Over ensuing office visits, Dr. Glaser consistently diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic neck, shoulder, back and leg pain and prescribed him high dose narcotics to provide him relief. Tr. 350-51, 352-53, 368-69, 370-71, 373-74.
Dr. Glaser completed a form titled "Attending Physician's Statement" on May 2, 2013, in which he offered a number of opinions relevant to Plaintiffs claim for Social Security disability. At the time he completed this form, Dr. Glaser had treated Plaintiff for more than four years with more that a dozen office visits. Dr. Glaser stated that it was his opinion Plaintiff could not sit, stand or walk more than two hours in an eight hour day and would likely be absent from work due to his severe impairments more than four days per month. Tr. 361. Plaintiffs work related conditions included "chronic back, neck, leg pain" and "chronic use of high ...