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Mills v. Berryhill

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

February 20, 2018

Hommer T. Mills, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain Judge

         Plaintiff Hommer T. Mills (“Mills”) brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[1]In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Before this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 25).[2] In her Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Mills has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 28), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 32). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 8, 2005, Mills applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning on June 5, 2004. Mills' application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On September 3, 2008, Mills amended his disability onset date to December 31, 2007, his fiftieth birthday.[3] On September 12, 2008, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Mills and a vocational expert (“VE”). On October 8, 2008, the ALJ denied Mills' claim for DIB. On August 6, 2010, the Appeals Council remanded the action after concluding that the ALJ erred in assessing Mills' credibility and in failing to consider the opinion of podiatrist Dr. Charles J. Gudas who opined that Mills was limited to a restricted range of sedentary work.

         On June 30, 2011, the ALJ held a second hearing and heard testimony from Mills and a VE. On July 13, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision again denying Mills' claim. The Appeals Council denied Mills' request for review. Thereafter, Mills brought an action in this court seeking review. On August 12, 2014, the magistrate judge reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further administrative review.[4] In part, the magistrate judge concluded that the ALJ should have accorded greater weight to the opinion of Dr. Gudas. In accordance with the court's order, on September 22, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the case to an ALJ. On January 8, 2015, the ALJ held a hearing and heard testimony from Mills and a VE, and on April 9, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Mills' claim.

         In his decision issued April 9, 2015, the ALJ found that Mills suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, status post lumbar surgery and left wrist fracture, and leg length discrepancy. The ALJ determined that Mills was unable to perform any past relevant work. The ALJ determined Mills had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work. The ALJ concluded that Mills, despite these limitations, could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mills was not disabled under the Act at any time from December 31, 2007, the amended alleged onset date, through December 31, 2009, the date last insured (“DLI”). Mills sought review of his case by the Appeals Council. On July 11, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Mills' request for review. Thereafter, on September 1, 2016, Mills brought this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, “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 . . . as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the court's findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Thus, in its review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         However, “[f]rom this it does not follow . . . 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 agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the 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 this conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In her Report, the magistrate judge recommends that the court affirm the ALJ's denial of DIB. Mills contends that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and this action be remanded based on the following grounds: 1) the ALJ failed to fully comply with the court's prior order in evaluating medical opinions from Drs. Gudas and Barry Weissglass; 2) the ALJ failed to comply with the court's prior order in assessing Mills' credibility; and 3) the ALJ did not meet the Commissioner's burden at step five to prove that other jobs existed that Mills could perform.

         In his objections, Mills states that he wants “the [c]ourt to enforce its own remand order.” (ECF No. 28 at 1). He contends that the ALJ disregarded the prior remand order. Id. In particular, Mills takes issue with the ALJ giving little weight to Dr. Gudas' opinions despite the previous remand order in which the magistrate judge stated that the ALJ should have accorded Dr. Gudas' opinion greater weight. Id. at 2.

         Dr. Gudas, a podiatrist, examined Mills in June 2006, and wrote a letter on July 26, 2007, describing Mills' limitations. (ECF No. 9-9 at 79. 80-81). Dr. Gudas noted that Mills had a leg length discrepancy where one leg was longer than the other and this, along with his back injury, affected Mills' ability to bend, squat, stand, walk, and lift light weights. Id. He also completed an activity restrictions checklist on September 25, 2007. (ECF No.9-9 at 77-78). In the prior remand order, the magistrate judge determined that the ALJ had erred by according little weight to the opinions of Dr. Gudas and some weight to Dr. Barry Weissglass. (ECF No. 10-3 at 66-67). The magistrate judge found that these opinions were supported by other evidence in the record. In her remand order, the magistrate judge stated:

that the ALJ should have accorded greater weight to the opinions of Drs. Gudas and Weissglass based on the criteria set forth for evaluating opinion evidence. The undersigned is not suggesting that Drs. Gudas's and Weissglass's opinions are entitled to controlling weight, but is instead indicating that the ALJ should have considered the uncontroverted elements of their opinions apart from the features that conflicted with other evidence in the ...

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