United States District Court, D. South Carolina
Richard Mark Gergel United States District Judge
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
accordance 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
June 30, 2017, recommending that the Commissioner's
decision be affirmed. (Dkt. No. 16). Plaintiff timely filed
objections to the R & R, and the Commissioner filed a
response. (Dkt. No. 18, 20). 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
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).
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).
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 regulations of the Social Security Administration, the
Commissioner is obligated to consider all medical evidence
and the opinions of medical sources. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(b). The regulation requires the Commissioner to
"evaluate every medical opinion we receive."
Id. § 404.1527(c). The Commissioner pledges to
give special consideration to the opinions of treating and
examining physicians, noting explicitly that "we will
give more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined
you than the opinion of a source who has not examined
you." Id. 404.1527(c)(1)(2).
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).
Further, since the Commissioner recognizes that the
non-examining expert has "no treating or examining
relationship" with the claimant, she pledges to weigh
the opinions of non-examining physicians under the same
standards as any other medical opinion and to consider the
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),
(e)(2)(h). The Commissioner is also prohibited from
"playing doctor, " by substituting the medical
opinions of the Commissioner or the Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) for those of physicians. Lewis v. Berryhill,
858 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017).
Commissioner is also obligated to weigh and consider a
claimant's subjective complaints of pain beyond
consideration of objective medical evidence. Under the
agency's regulatory scheme, the ALJ must first determine
if there is objective medical evidence showing a condition
that reasonably could produce the claimant's symptoms. If
such objective medical evidence is present, the ALJ must then
evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of
the symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit the
claimant's activities. This second step requires an
assessment of the claimant's credibility. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1529. In making this credibility determination,
the ALJ may not require objective medical evidence to
document the intensity of the claimant's pain since this
would improperly increase his burden under the regulatory
scheme. Lewis, 858 F.3d at 866.
weighing a claimant's capacity for physical exertion, the
Commissioner classifies work into four categories: sedentary,
light, medium, and heavy work. Light work requires "a
good deal of walking or standing, " with the full scope
of light work requiring a total of approximately 6 hours in
an 8 hour day. Sedentary work involves standing and walking
only occasionally. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567; SSR 83-10, 1983
WL 31251 (1983).
claimant filed his claim for DIB on November 14, 2012, just
before his fiftieth birthday, and was 52 years of age on his
date last insured, December 31, 2014. Plaintiff alleged a
whole litany of upper and lower extremity impairments as well
as mental health impairments. Following an administrative
hearing on January 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision on
March 12, 2015 denying Plaintiffs claim for DIB. In reaching
that conclusion, the ALJ found that the claimant suffered
from a number of severe physical impairments, including
degenerative changes in his lumbar spine, a history of lower
back muscle strain, cervical spondylosis, status post left
radius fracture, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The ALJ further
found Plaintiff suffered from severe mental health
impairments, anxiety disorder and depression. Tr. 58. Despite
these numerous severe physical and mental impairments, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity to perform less than the full scope of light work.
These limitations from the full scope of light work included
only occasional ramps, stairs, stooping, kneeling and
crawling and an avoidance of climbing and extreme heat or
cold. Tr. 61.
record contained considerable evidence relating to the
Plaintiffs capacity to stand and walk for any sustained
period of time. Plaintiff testified that due to his severe
back and neck impairments and pain, he could stand no longer
than 20-30 minutes and could walk no longer than 25-30 yards.
He stated that his back hurts constantly and he is presently
unable to engage in previous activities of fishing and
gardening because of his pain. Tr. 89-93.
Harish Mangipudi, who performed a medical examination of
Plaintiff on February 16, 2013 at the request of the Social
Security Administration, found evidence of structural
deformity in the manner Plaintiff walked and the presence of
both cervical and low back paraspinal tenderness. He also
documented the presence of abnormal gait and station and that
the claimant was unable to stand on his tiptoes and heels or
tandem walk without problems. Plaintiff was also unable to
bend and squat without difficulty. Tr. 392. An evaluation of
Plaintiff s range of motion revealed the presence of markedly
abnormal limitations in flexion and extension in Plaintiffs
cervical and lumbar spine. Tr. 395. Dr. Mangipudi also
reviewed objective medical evidence from Plaintiffs Social
Security disability application file, which included an MRI
of the lumbar spine showing degenerative changes at ¶
2-3, L4-5, and L5-S1 and a plain film of the cervical spine
showing spondylosis with neural foraminal impingement. Tr.