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Lydia v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

September 28, 2016

Freda Lydia, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge.

         This is an action brought pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”).

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Freda Lydia protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on September 20, 2005, alleging disability since May 1, 2005. R. 69, 70, 94-99, 100-06. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. R. 73-77, 81-82, 84-85. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was initially held on January 22, 2009, before ALJ Gregory Wilson. R. 30-68. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision dated March 12, 2009, in which he concluded that the Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. R. 6-22. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to DIB or SSI under Sections 216(i), 223(d), or 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on April 15, 2011, making the ALJ's decision the “final decision” for the purposes of judicial review. R. 1-5.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint in this court on June 14, 2011, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). R. 590-91. On July 25, 2012, the Honorable Bruce H. Hendricks, United States Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that the ALJ be reversed and remanded. Lydia v. Astrue, No. 11-1453, 2012 WL 3304107 (D.S.C. July 25, 2012). On August 13, 2012, the Honorable David C. Norton, United States District Judge, issued an order adopting the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, reversing and remanding the case to the agency. Lydia v. Astrue, No. 11-1453, 2012 WL 3308108 (D.S.C. Aug. 13, 2012). Judge Norton, through adopting the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, found that the ALJ failed to explain his reasons for concluding that Dr. Ruffing's opinion was inconsistent with his examination. Id. at *1 (adopting 2012 WL 3304107 at *8-9). The Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ on May 21, 2013. The ALJ held a second hearing on November 21, 2013, and a third hearing on July 10, 2014. R. 457-514, 515-65. ALJ again issued an unfavorable decision on December 5, 2014, which became the final decision of the Commissioner for the purposes of judicial review. R. 391-456. Plaintiff thereafter brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ECF No. 1.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges, for a Report and Recommendation. On January 25, 2016, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation in which she recommended the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits be reversed. ECF No. 18. The Commissioner filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on February 4, 2016. ECF No. 20. Plaintiff filed a response to the Commissioner's Objections on February 22, 2016. ECF No. 22.

         The matter is now before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report and Recommendation to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). After a careful review of the record in this matter, the Report and Recommendation, and the applicable legal standards, the court finds that the Report and Recommendation provides an accurate summary of the instant case. The court adopts all portions of the Report and Recommendation, reverses the decision of the Commissioner, and remands the matter to the agency, as further explained below.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court is authorized to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); however, the court's role is a limited one. Section 405(g) provides that “[t]he 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 a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). The court must not “try the case de novo” and it is “immaterial that the evidence before [the court] will permit a conclusion inconsistent with [the ALJ].” Id.; Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). However, this does not require the “the findings of the administrative agency [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). “[T]he courts must not abdicate their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the [Commissioner's] findings, and that his conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58. In reviewing the decision of the Commissioner, the court must “closely scrutinize the administrative proceedings to insure a result consistent with congressional intent and elemental fairness.” Flack, 413 F.2d at 280.

         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, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). However, the Commissioner's denial of benefits shall be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support that determination. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, the Social Security Act has by regulation reduced the statutory definition of “disability” to a series of five sequential questions. See e.g., Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460 (1983). An examiner must consider whether the claimant (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that equals an illness contained in the Social Security Administration's Official Listings of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Part 4, Subpart P, App. 1, (4) has an impairment that prevents past relevant work; and (5) has an impairment that prevents her from doing substantial gainful employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1503(a); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260 (4th Cir. 1981).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff was thirty-seven years old on her alleged disability onset date and was forty-seven years old at the time of the ALJ's most recent unfavorable decision regarding her applications for DIB and SSI. R. 448. She has a high school diploma, a cosmetology license, and has worked in the past as a winder, spinner, creeler, cashier, and stock clerk. R. 35, 59, 136. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning May 1, 2005. R. 94. Plaintiff alleges both physical and mental disabilities. Plaintiff alleges physical problems with her hands, back, and knees.[1] R. 397. Further, Plaintiff asserts that she suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorders. R. 208-09, 233-49, 268, 278-79, 309-11, 315, 318, 340-46, 398, 698-700, 722-25. Plaintiff's medical history has been discussed at length in the Report and Recommendation; therefore, the court incorporates the Report and Recommendation's factual summary. ECF No. 18 at 2-18.[2] Plaintiff's history of alleged mental disability may be summarized as follows. Beginning with her physical injury in late 2004, Plaintiff alleges she has become more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed because she cannot work. R. 43-45; 471. Plaintiff further alleges that past trauma, including her father committing suicide in front of her and an abusive marriage, have contributed to her depression and anxiety. R. 43-45, 49. Plaintiff has been inconsistent in her treatment of her mental health issues but alleges that she has been unable to afford treatments as she no longer has insurance coverage. R. 46, 478, 480-83.

         The Commissioner asserts specific objections to the Report and Recommendation. The court will review ...


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