United States District Court, D. South Carolina
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 Income ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). 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 March 9, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded. (Dkt. No. 18). The Commissioner filed a response indicating that she did not intend to file objections to the R & R. (Dkt. No. 21). For reasons set forth below, the Court adopts the R & R, in part, as the order of this Court, as further supplemented and elucidated by this opinion; reverses the decision of the Commissioner; and remands the matter to the agency for further action consistent with this order.
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).
The Commissioner, in passing upon an application for disability benefits, is required to undertake a five-step sequential process. At Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful employment, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Two, which involves a determination whether the claimant has any "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(H). If the claimant has one or more severe impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to Step Three, which involves a determination whether any impairment of the claimant satisfies any one of a designated list of impairments that would automatically render the claimant disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Four, which involves an assessment of the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). This requires assessment of the claimant's ability "to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work" Id. § 404.1545(a)(4). In determining the claimant's RFC, the Commissioner "must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions" and provide a narrative "describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts .. . and nonmedical evidence" SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34474, 34475, 34478 (July 2, 1996). Where a claimant has multiple mental and/or physical impairments, the Commissioner must consider the combined effect of those multiple impairments on the claimant's ability to meet the requirements of work. Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 49-50 (4th Cir. 1989).
Once the claimant's RFC is determined, the Commissioner must assess whether the claimant can do his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(4)(iv), 1545(a)(5)(i). If the claimant, notwithstanding the RFC determination, can still perform his past relevant work, he is deemed not to be disabled. If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner then proceeds to Step Five to determine if there is other available work in the national economy he can perform in light of the RFC determination. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
If it is determined that the claimant cannot return to his prior work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish whether the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Walker, 889 F.2d at 50. To the extent that the claimant's impairments involve both exertional and nonexertional impairments, the Commissioner is obligated to rely upon a vocational expert to establish that the claimant retains the ability to perform specific jobs in the national economy. Id. Such opinions by vocational experts are normally offered in response to a hypothetical or a series of hypothetical questions. It is essential that the vocational expert's opinions be based on consideration of all of the evidence in the record and that the hypothetical questions set out all of the claimant's impairments. Id. at 50-51.
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). This includes the duty 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)(l)-(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, 61 Fed. Reg. 34490, 34492 (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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3).
Social Security rules and regulations recognize that chronic pain may not necessarily be provable by objective diagnostic studies and that the subjective complaints of a claimant should be given fair consideration in making a determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186 (1996). The Administrative Law Judge, when evaluating a claimant's complaints of chronic pain, is directed to consider such factors as the claimant's daily activities, location, frequency and intensity of the claimant's pain symptoms, any precipitating or aggravating factors, the effectiveness of any pain medications, and treatment received. § 404.1529(c)(3)(i)-(vii). Where there is conflicting evidence regarding the claimant's degree of ...