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Meyer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

March 29, 2018

Martha Maria Meyer, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


         This matter is before the court upon review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) (ECF No. 17), recommending that the Commissioner's Decision be reversed and remanded. For the reasons stated below, the court ACCEPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report (ECF No. 17).


         The court concludes upon its own careful review of the record that the factual and procedural summation in the Report (ECF No. 17) is accurate, and the court adopts this summary as its own. The court will only recite herein procedures pertinent to the court's review of the Report (ECF No. 17). On January 4, 2018, Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin filed the Report (ECF No. 17), and on January 18, 2018, the Commissioner timely filed an Objection (ECF No. 18). Plaintiff did not reply to the Commissioner's Objection (ECF No. 18).


         The court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) which gives the court jurisdiction over a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.


         The Magistrate Judge's Report is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court, which has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objections are made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2)-(3). Additionally, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), “[t]he [court] may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.”

         “Although this court may review parts of the Magistrate Judge's [Report] de novo, judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits ‘is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.'” Sherby v. Astrue, 767 F.Supp.2d 592, 594 (D.S.C. 2010) (citing Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002)). “It is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if h[er] decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g), the court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff has two (2) severe impairments, a mood disorder and an anxiety disorder. (Tr. 17.)[2] The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's mental condition has resulted in “mild limitations in her activities of daily living, moderate limitations in her social functioning, and moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.” (Tr. 18.) Ultimately, after considering the entire record, including Plaintiff's limitations, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions with no ongoing public interaction.” (Id.)

         The Commissioner specifically objects to the Report's “[erroneous conclusion] that remand is warranted because the ALJ impermissibly relied on the Medical-Vocational Guideline (“Grids”) in finding Plaintiff not disabled.”[3] (ECF No. 18 at 1.) The Commissioner asserts that “. . . an ALJ may rely on the Grids provided the additional limitations do not cause significant erosion of the occupational base.” (ECF No. 18 at 2.) Moreover, the Commissioner asserts that “[t]he ALJ clearly explained why, despite Plaintiff's limitations to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions, with no ongoing public interaction, such limitations had little or no effect on the occupational base.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff only has nonexertional limitations, therefore, the ALJ cannot solely rely on the Grids in determining at step five of the evaluation whether there are a significant number of jobs that Plaintiff can perform given her RFC, but the ALJ can use the Grids as a guideline. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(c)(2); Hammond v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 424, 426 (4th Cir. 1985) (the Grids are inadequate to describe “[a] claimant who suffers from a disability present in the absence of physical exertion.”).[4] The key inquiry as to the applicability of the Grids is “. . . whether the nonexertional condition affects an individual's RFC to perform work of which he is exertionally capable.” Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 49 (4th Cir. 1989) (construing Grant v. Schweiker, 719 F.2d 723, 725 (4th Cir. 1984)).

         In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's limited medical treatment for her mental health conditions (Tr. 19), her ability to perform several daily living activities independently (Tr. 20), and weighed the medical opinions of Plaintiff's doctors and state agency medical consultants (Tr. 20-24). Based on this analysis, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions with no ongoing public interaction. (Tr. 18.) However, after this analysis and taking into consideration Plaintiff's limitations, the ALJ states in a conclusory manner that Plaintiff's limitations would not preclude unskilled work.[5] (Tr. 25.)

         This case is similar to Phillips v. Astrue, where the plaintiff suffered from a “severe mental impairment of depression and ha[d] mild to moderate difficulties in the area of social functioning and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence and pace.” 2012 WL 3765184, at *3 (D.S.C. June 11, 2012), report and recommendation adopted, No. 4:11-CV-01018-JMC, 2012 WL 3775968 (D.S.C. Aug. 30, 2012). The Phillips court held that “[m]oderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning or concentration, persistence or pace, ...

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