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Jackson v. Colvin

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

January 26, 2016

Gray Helms Jackson, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

JACQUELYN D. AUSTIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This matter is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[1] 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 the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), denying Plaintiff’s claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2]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).

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 29, 2011, and March 31, 2011, respectively, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning February 25, 2011. [R. 192-201.] The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“the Administration”). [R. 68-79, 82-109.] Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and on June 20, 2013, ALJ Clinton C. Hicks conducted a hearing on Plaintiff’s claims. [R. 35-65.]

On September 13, 2013, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. [R. 18-28.] At Step 1[3], the ALJ found Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) on December 31, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 25, 2011, the alleged onset date [R. 20, Findings 1 & 2.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: viral hepatitis; hepatic encephalopathy; grade II, stage II to III septal fibrosis; osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, status-post right total knee arthroplasty; chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease; atrial fibrillation status-post pacemaker implantation; sick sinus syndrome and chronic hypertension. [R. 20, Finding 3.] The ALJ also found Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: other conditions mentioned in the claimant's medical records; and claimant’s medically determinable mental impairments of generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder. [Id. at 21.]

At Step 3, the ALJ determined Plaintiff’s impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. [R. 23, Finding 4.] The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.00, 2.00, 4.00, 5.00, 14.00, and specifically considered the additional effects of the claimant's obesity under Social Security Ruling 02-1p. [Id.]

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

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant would be precluded from squatting and climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; would be limited to occasional climbing ramps and stairs and would require the ability to sit and stand at will.

[R. 23, Finding 5.] Based on this RFC, at Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as a loan officer. [R. 28, Finding 6.] Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from February 25, 2011, through the date of the decision, nor was he entitled to SSI based on his March 31, 2011, application. [R. 28.]

Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ’s decision with the Appeals Council, which denied review on November 13, 2014. [R. 1-6.] Plaintiff commenced an action for judicial review in this Court on December 31, 2014. [Doc. 1.]

THE PARTIES’ POSITIONS

Plaintiff contends the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and contains multiple legal errors warranting the reversal and remand of the case. [See Doc. 8.] Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ:

1. erred by failing to find Plaintiff’s mental impairments severe and by discounting the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians and the state agency physician based solely on Plaintiff’s activities of daily living [id. at 8-13];
2. erred by improperly discounting Plaintiff’s credibility with respect to his testimony regarding the limitations associated with his psychiatric symptoms [id. at 14-15]; and,
3. erred by finding Plaintiff could return to his past work without any evidence that his job had a sit/stand option [id. at 15-16].

The Commissioner contends the ALJ’s decision should be affirmed because there is substantial evidence of record that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. [See Doc. 9.] Specifically, the Commissioner contends the ALJ:

1. appropriately determined that Plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment and properly weighed the medical evidence related to his mental illness [id. at 11-17];
2. performed a proper credibility analysis and reasonably discounted Plaintiff’s subjective complaints regarding his psychiatric symptoms and resulting limitations [id. at 18-21]; and,
3. complied with applicable regulations and rulings in making his Step 4 determination that Plaintiff could return to his past work [id. at 21-23].

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. §§ 404.1520, 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. §§ 404.1520(a), 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. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a)-and gainful-done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized, id. §§ 404.1572(b), 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. §§ 404.1574-.1575, 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. §§ 404.1521, 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. §§ 404.1509 or 416.909, the ALJ will find the claimant disabled without considering the claimant’s age, education, and work experience.[5] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 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. §§ 404.1560(b), 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. §§ 404.1520(f)-(g), 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. §§ 404.1569a, 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 ...


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