United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Edward Orlando
Thomas' objections to United States Magistrate Judge Mary
Gordon Baker's report and recommendation (“R &
R”) (ECF Nos. 25 & 23). The Magistrate Judge
recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed
and remanded. For the reasons stated herein, the Court
overrules the Commissioner's objections, adopts the R
& R, reverses the Commissioner's decision, and
remands for further proceedings.
January 25, 2018, the Magistrate Judge issued her R & R
recommending that the Court reverse and remand the ALJ's
decision. The Commissioner filed objections on February 8,
and Thomas responded on February 15. Accordingly, this matter
is now ripe for review.
Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court.
The R & R has no presumptive weight, and the
responsibility for making a final determination remains with
the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71
(1976). Parties may make written objections to the Magistrate
Judge's proposed findings and recommendations within
fourteen days after being served with a copy of the R &
R. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This Court must conduct a de
novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a
specific objection is made, and the Court may accept, reject,
or modify the Magistrate Judge's findings and
recommendations in whole or in part. Id.
Additionally, the Court may recommit the matter to the
Magistrate Judge with instructions. Id. A
party's failure to object is taken as the party's
agreement with the Magistrate Judge's conclusions.
See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 151-52 (1985).
Absent a timely, specific objection-or as to those portions
of the R & R to which no specific objection is made-this
Court “must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no
clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the
recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life
& Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir.
2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's
Commissioner asserts two objections to the R & R. First,
she argues that, contrary to the findings of the Magistrate
Judge, the ALJ properly considered the combined effects of
Thomas' physical and mental impairments, which include
post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and
chronic pain, when determining his residual functional
capacity (“RFC”). Second, she objects to the
Magistrate Judge's determination that it was not
necessary to address the remaining issues in the case. The
Court addresses each in turn.
reviewing court must uphold the findings and conclusions of
the ALJ “if they are supported by substantial evidence
and were reached through application of the correct legal
standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589
(4th Cir. 1996). When a claimant has multiple impairments,
the ALJ must consider the combined effect of those
impairments when determining the claimant's RFC. 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). It is not enough for an ALJ to
recite a claimant's medical history and then summarily
announce a conclusion about his RFC; rather the ALJ must
“build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence
to his conclusion.” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d
176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Clifford v. Apfel,
227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)); see also King v.
Califano, 615 F.2d 1018, 1020 (4th Cir. 1980) (requiring
an ALJ to consider all the evidence and explain the reasons
for his findings). The Magistrate Judge found that when the
ALJ determined Thomas' RFC, he did not analyze and
explain the cumulative effect of Thomas' physical and
mental impairments. The Court agrees. While the ALJ's
decision summarizes Thomas' mental and physical health
records, the ALJ does not analyze how his PTSD symptoms
interact with his physical conditions, such as his chronic
pain. As the Magistrate Judge explained, this failure is
especially troubling given that Thomas testified that his
PTSD worsened as his physical condition worsened. The ALJ
noted this testimony, but did not explain how it contributed
to the determination of Thomas' RFC. Similarly, the ALJ
noted that a consultative examiner suggested Thomas' PTSD
was contributing to his pain, but the ALJ did not assess or
explain that interaction.
Commissioner argues that the ALJ did consider all of
Thomas' limitations in combination. However, the
Commissioner's support for this assertion is not
compelling: Rather than identifying a particular passage
where the ALJ properly analyzed and explained the combined
effects of Thomas' PTSD and chronic pain, the
Commissioner cites to fifteen pages that include the
ALJ's findings on severity, his lengthy summary of
Thomas' medical history, and his RFC determination.
(Social Security Admin. R., ECF No. 11-2, at 16-31.) The
Commissioner later claims that four of those pages (21-22,
25, and 27) explain the combined effects of Thomas'
impairments. In these pages, the Court finds Thomas'
testimony about his combined effects and the consultative
examiner's assessment that Thomas may be experiencing
combined effects, but no actual analysis by the ALJ examining
how Thomas' PTSD contributes to his pain.
Commissioner notes that this Court once quoted another
district court for the idea that “[s]ufficient
consideration of the combined effects of a plaintiff's
impairments is shown when each is separately discussed in the
ALJ's decision.” Seabolt v. Barnhart, 481
F.Supp.2d 538, 547-48 (D.S.C. 2007) (quoting Baldwin v.
Barnhart, 444 F.Supp.2d 457, 465 (E.D. N.C. 2005)).
However, in Seabolt, this Court also said,
“the fact that the ALJ did not discuss [the combined
effect of a plaintiff's severe impairments] is evidence
that he did not consider it.” Id. at 547.
Moreover, since Seabolt, the Fourth Circuit has
emphasized that ALJs' failure to “[s]how [their]
work” has become “all too common among
administrative decisions challenged in this court.”
Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 846
F.3d 656, 663 (4th Cir. 2017). While the ALJ's decision
does mention Thomas' and the consultative examiner's
statements about the combined effects of his PTSD and pain,
the decision does not actually analyze the interaction of
these impairments or explain how that interaction contributes
to Thomas' RFC. As in Seabolt, the fact that the
ALJ did not thoroughly discuss the combined effects is
evidence that he did not consider them. 444 F.Supp.2d at 547.
Though the decision thoroughly recites the medical record,
the ALJ does not properly show his work, 846 F.3d at 663, by
analyzing the cumulative effect of Thomas' impairments
and building a bridge, 826 F.3d at 189, from the evidence to
Commissioner also argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in
concluding that the ALJ failed to give appropriate deference
to the disability rating of the Veterans' Administration
(“VA”). In Bird v. Commissioner of Social
Security, the Fourth Circuit explained that “a VA
disability determination must be accorded substantial weight
in Social Security disability proceedings.” 699 F.3d.
337, 345 (4th Cir. 2012). The Magistrate Judge found that the
ALJ failed to give substantial weight to Thomas' VA
disability rating of 50%, solely for his PTSD. The Magistrate
Judge explained that the ALJ did not assign any particular
weight to the rating and gave it short shrift by noting that
the VA uses a different definition of disability and that
“a 50% disability rating is consistent with a
determination that the claimant is not disabled.”
(Social Security Admin. R., ECF No. 11-2, at 31.) While the
Court recognizes that the VA has its own disability
definitions and procedures, the Court agrees with the
Magistrate Judge that the ALJ's quick dismissal of
Thomas' rating-which reflects his disability from just
one of his impairments-fell short of the consideration
required by Bird.