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Coleman v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2018

Penny Coleman, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         The plaintiff, Penny Coleman, (“Coleman”), 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”), [1] denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 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 reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 15).[2] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. The Commissioner filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 17), and Coleman filed a response to those objections (ECF No. 22). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.


         Coleman applied for SSI on May 8, 2013, alleging disability beginning on December 1, 2011. (ECF No. 15 at 2). Coleman's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On April 15, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from both Coleman and a vocational expert. On July 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Coleman's claim.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Coleman suffered from the following severe impairments: other and unspecified arthropathies, anxiety, affective disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. Id. at 23. The ALJ found that, despite Coleman's limitations, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. Id. Coleman sought review of her case by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Coleman's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The present action followed.


         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.


         In her Report, the magistrate judge found: (1) that substantial evidence supported both the ALJ's finding that Coleman was not illiterate and his decision not to direct a finding of disability based on Medical-Vocational Rule 201.17[3] and (2) that the ALJ erred by relying on the jobs recommended by the Vocational Expert (“VE”) without resolving a conflict between the restrictions in the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) assessment and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) descriptions of the jobs. (ECF No. 15). Accordingly, the Report recommends that the case be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Commissioner filed a single objection to the magistrate judge's Report arguing that the magistrate judge erred in finding that remand is warranted because there is a potential conflict between the RFC limitation to jobs “not at a production rate, ” and the job of “nut sorter.” (ECF No. 17). The Commissioner argues that there is no conflict.

         To facilitate a uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, regulations promulgated under the Act have 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). In the final step of the five-step sequential process, the ALJ considers the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC to decide whether she can perform alternative work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c). The claimant has the burden of proof for the first four steps, but at the final, fifth step, the Commissioner bears the burden to prove that the claimant is able to perform alternative work. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). To answer this final question-whether sufficient other work exists for the claimant in the national economy-the ALJ relies primarily on the DOT. Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). The ALJ may also use a VE to address complex aspects of the employment determination, including the expert's observations of what a particular job requires in practice or the availability of given positions in the national economy. Id. The ALJ must:

inquire, on the record, . . . whether the vocational expert's testimony conflicts with the [DOT], and [must] elicit a reasonable explanation for and resolve conflicts between the expert's testimony and the [DOT]. The ALJ must, by determining if the vocational expert's explanation is reasonable, resolve conflicts before relying on the [vocational expert's] evidence to support a determination or decision about whether the claimant is disabled.

Id. at 207-08. Thus, “[t]he ALJ independently must identify conflicts between the expert's testimony and the [DOT].” Id. at 209. Furthermore, “an ALJ has not fully developed the record if it contains an unresolved conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT” and “an ALJ errs if he ignores an apparent conflict on the basis that the VE testified ...

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