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Vanadore v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 31, 2017

Columbus Vanadore, Plaintiff,
Nancy A Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          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 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 this decision.

         Legal Standard

         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).

         Under 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).

         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)(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).

         The 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.

         In 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).

         Factual Background

         The 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.

         The 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.

         Dr. 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. ...

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