United States District Court, D. South Carolina
OPINION AND ORDER
C. Coggins, Jr. United States District Judge
brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
seeking judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI"). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)
and Local Civil Rule 73.02 (D.S.C.), this matter was referred
to a United States Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling.
On August 20, 2018, Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin
issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”),
recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be
reversed and remanded. ECF No. 23. On August 29, 2018, the
Commissioner filed objections to the Report. ECF No. 24.
Plaintiff filed a Reply on September 25, 2018. ECF No. 29.
For the reasons stated below, the Court adopts the Report and
incorporates it herein by reference.
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
this Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71.
The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of
only those portions of the Report that have been specifically
objected to, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify the
Report, in whole or in part. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme
established by the Social Security Act (“the
Act”) is a limited one. Section 205(g) of the Act
provides, “[t]he findings of the Secretary 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. Celebreeze, 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). The court must
uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it was
supported by substantial evidence and reached through the
application of the correct legal standard. Johnson v.
Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). “From this
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). “[T]he 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 his conclusion is
rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.
applied for SSI on October 3, 2014, alleging that he has been
disabled since March 8, 2014. Plaintiff's claim was
denied initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter,
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on October 20, 2016.
The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim in a decision issued
December 27, 2016. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for a review, making the determination of the ALJ the
final decision of the Commissioner.
request for judicial review, Plaintiff raises four claims.
First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly
consider Plaintiff's schizoaffective disorder. Second,
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to use substantial
evidence in his evaluation of Listing 1.04, disorders of the
spine. Third, Plaintiff claims that Vocational Expert
("VE") testimony was required. Finally, Plaintiff
contends the ALJ wrongly dismissed the opinion of the
treating physician and nonmedical source opinion.
Magistrate Judge provides a thorough recitation of the facts
of this case and the applicable legal standards in her
Report, which the Court incorporates by reference. The
Magistrate Judge evaluated the merits of Plaintiff's
arguments and found that the ALJ erred by relying on the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the Grids") and not
requiring a VE to testify at the hearing. Therefore, the
Magistrate Judge recommended remanding the case so that the
ALJ can take testimony from a VE to properly evaluate
Plaintiff's claim for SSI benefits. The Commissioner
filed Objections, claiming the ALJ properly relied solely on
the Grids in determining that Plaintiff was not disabled.
Commissioner may, at times, rely exclusively on the Grids
when evaluating a claimant's disability. However,
"when a claimant suffers from both exertional and
nonexertional limitations, the grid tables are not conclusive
but may only serve as guidelines." Walker v.
Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 49 (4th Cir. 1989). While "not
every nonexertional limitation or malady rises to the level
of a nonexertional impairment, so as to preclude reliance on
the grids[, ] . . . [t]he proper inquiry . . . is whether the
nonexertional condition affects an individual's residual
functional capacity to perform work of which he is
exertionally capable." Id. at 49 (internal
citations omitted). Thus, when a claimant "demonstrates
the presence of nonexertional impairments, the Secretary, in
order to prevail, must be required to prove by expert
vocational testimony that, despite [the claimant's]
combination of nonexertional and exertional impairments,
specific jobs exist in the national economy which he can
perform." Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192
(4th Cir. 1983).
the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments
of, inter alia, degenerative disc disease, anxiety,
and depression. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has
moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace,
and that Plaintiff "is limited to understanding,
remembering, and carrying out simple instructions." ECF
No. 13-2 at 22-23. Moreover, at Step Five of the sequential
analysis, the ALJ found:
If the claimant had the residual functional capacity to
perform the full range of medium work, considering the
claimant's age, education, and work experience, a finding
of "not disabled" would be directed by the [Grids].
However, the additional limitations have little or no effect
on the occupational base of unskilled medium work. The
postural limitations would not significantly limit the medium
occupational base. Further, the claimant's ability to
understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions is
one of the basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative,
unskilled work, and therefore does not preclude the
performance of unskilled work. A finding of "not
disabled" is therefore appropriate under this rule.
Id. at 28.
Commissioner contends in her Objections that the Magistrate
Judge "did not review the soundness of the ALJ's
mental RFC assessment before drawing its conclusion about the
Grids." ECF No. 24 at 6. Had she done so, the
Commissioner argues, the Report would ...