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Tant v. Colvin

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

January 27, 2016

Sheila M. Tant, 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 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 Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act 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 disabled widow's insurance benefits ("DWIB"). 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 January 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and DWIB, alleging disability beginning July 31, 2012. [R. 203-17.] The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration"). [R. 114-21, 126-37.] Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and on May 8, 2014, ALJ Edward T. Morriss conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. [R. 31-52.]

         On June 12, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding Plaintiff not disabled for DIB or DWIB. [R. 17-26.] At Step 1[2], the ALJ found Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act ("the Act") through December 31, 2017; met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits set forth in section 202(e) of the Act; and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2012, the alleged onset date. [R. 19, Findings 1, 2 & 4.]

         At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. [R. 20, Finding 5.] The ALJ also found Plaintiff had the non-severe impairment of anxiety. [ Id. ]

         At Step 3, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. [R. 20, Finding 6.] The ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.04 related to disorders of the spine. [ 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 less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant can lift, carry, push and/or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently.
She can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day, and stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day, with normal breaks. The claimant can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs and crouch. She can frequently balance, stoop, kneel and crawl. Additionally, she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can only occasionally reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities.

         [R. 21, Finding 7.] Based on this RFC, at Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a registrar. [R. 26, Finding 8.] Thus, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from July 31, 2012, through June 12, 2014, the date of the decision; nor was she entitled to DWIB based on her January 29, 2013, application. [R. 26.]

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, which denied review on October 24, 2014. [R. 1-6.] Plaintiff commenced an action for judicial review in this Court on December 6, 2014. [Doc. 1.]

         THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and contains legal errors warranting the reversal and remand of the case. [ See Doc. 13.] Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinion of Plaintiff's treating orthopedic surgeon Dr. Shaleish Patel ("Dr. Patel") in determining her RFC. [ Id. at 4-9.] Plaintiff also argues the ALJ improperly gave more weight to the opinion of a nontreating state agency physician although there was no evidence of record from a treating or examining physician that was inconsistent with the opinion of Dr. Patel. [ Id. at 9-12.]

         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. 16.] Specifically, the Commissioner contends the ALJ properly assigned little weight to Dr. Patel's opinion as his treatment notes failed to include evidence that would support deficits in Plaintiff's upper and lower extremity strength and his findings were inconsistent with Plaintiff's activities of daily living. [ Id. at 7-10.] Additionally, the Commissioner contends the ALJ properly found Dr. Patel's opinion was contradicted by the state agency physician opinion, and thus, the ALJ was not required to fully credit Dr. Patel's opinion. [ Id. at 10-12.]

         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).[3] 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. 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); 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)-and gainful-done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized, id. § 404.1572(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.

         B. Severe Impairment

         An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. See id. § 404.1521. 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). 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).

         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, the ALJ will find the claimant disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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[4] 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).

         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 Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)-(g). 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.[5] 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 200.00(e); see also 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; 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 ensuring that favorable as well as unfavorable facts and circumstances are elicited." Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         III. Treating Physicians

         If a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence" in the record, the ALJ must give it controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). The ALJ may discount a treating physician's opinion if it is unsupported or inconsistent with other evidence, i.e., when the treating physician's opinion does not warrant controlling weight, Craig, 76 F.3d at 590, but the ALJ must nevertheless assign a weight to the medical opinion based on the 1) length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; 2) nature and extent of the treatment relationship; 3) supportability of the opinion; 4) consistency of the opinion with the record a whole; 5) specialization of the physician; and 6) other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). Similarly, where a treating physician has merely made conclusory statements, the ALJ may afford the opinion such weight as is supported by clinical or laboratory findings and other consistent evidence of a claimant's impairments. See Craig, 76 F.3d at 590 (holding there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to reject the treating physician's conclusory opinion where the record contained contradictory evidence).

         In any instance, a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than a consulting physician's opinion. SeeMitchell v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 185, 187 (4th Cir. 1983) (stating that treating physician's opinion must be accorded great weight because "it reflects an expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition for a prolonged period of time"); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). An ALJ determination coming down on the side of a non-examining, non-treating physician's opinion can stand only if the medical testimony of examining and treating physicians goes both ways. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 346 (4th Cir. 1986). Further, the ALJ is required to review all of the medical findings and other evidence that support a medical source's ...


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