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Wyatt v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

Alicia Wyatt, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Alicia Wyatt (“Wyatt”) brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and 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 the court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 22).[1] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Wyatt filed objections to the Report[2] (ECF No. 27), and the Commissioner responded to those objections (ECF No. 34). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.


         On May 15, 2014, Wyatt applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of May 24, 2009. (ECF No. 9-2 at 23). These claims were denied both initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). Id. Wyatt then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and on July 22, 2016, the ALJ conducted a hearing on Wyatt's claims for DIB and SSI. Id. Wyatt was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id. On September 23, 2016, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that Wyatt was not disabled. Id. at 23-32.

         In his decision, the ALJ found Wyatt met the insured status requirements under the Act through December 31, 2014, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 24, 2009, the alleged onset date of disability. Id. at 25. The ALJ further found that Wyatt suffered from the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia and depression with anxiety. Id. Furthermore, the ALJ found that Wyatt's alleged headaches and vertigo were non-medically determinable impairments. Id. at 25-26. In reviewing all of Wyatt's impairments, the ALJ concluded that Wyatt did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Id. at 26. Additionally, the ALJ calculated Wyatt's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determined that she could perform light work with various limitations.[3] Id. at 27. Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Wyatt is unable to perform her past relevant work as a loan clerk or teller. Id. at 30. However, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform” such as being a small parts assembler, mail clerk, or housekeeper. Id. at 31. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Wyatt was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. Id.

         Wyatt subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Wyatt's request for review. Id. at 2-6. Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.


         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the Act. 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.


         The magistrate judge filed a Report, recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. (ECF No. 22). In her objections, Wyatt asserts that that the magistrate judge did not address the ALJ's failure to explain the RFC calculation in relation to concerns of concentration, persistence, and pace and did not address the “errors the ALJ made in his evaluation of Wyatt's fibromyalgia.” (ECF No. 27 at 2-4).

         The court agrees that the ALJ did not adequately explain how he arrived at his conclusions regarding Wyatt's limitations regarding concentration, persistence, and pace. At step two in his analysis, the ALJ specifically determined that “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties” and that Wyatt “has difficulties maintaining concentration.” (ECF No. 9-2 at 26). However, when he calculated Wyatt's RFC at step four, the ALJ determined that “claimant is able to sustain concentration, persistence, and pace sufficient to perform simple routine tasks.” Id. at 27. As the magistrate judge noted, such a determination does not account for a claimant's limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace. (ECF No. 22 at 22) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015)). However, the magistrate judge, relying on Sizemore v. Berryhill, 878 F.3d 72 (4th Cir. 2007), determined that the ALJ's explanation of his RFC calculation showed that the medical evidence supported a conclusion that the moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace, did not translate into limitations in the RFC, and that, therefore, the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 22 at 27).

         While the court agrees with the magistrate judge that remand is not necessary if an ALJ thoroughly explains in his RFC calculation why the difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace did not translate into further limitations in the RFC findings, the court agrees with Wyatt that, here, the explanation from the ALJ is “lacking in the analysis needed for [it] to review meaningfully [his] conclusions.” See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 - 37. First, this case is distinguishable from Sizemore, where the ALJ assigned significant weight to various medical opinions and relied on those opinions in determining that the claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace did not translate into the claimant being unable to “stay on task while performing ‘simple one, two-step tasks' as long as he was ‘working in low stress non-production jobs with no public contact.'” Sizemore, 878 F.3d at 81 (emphasis in original). Because those limitations were then accounted for in the RFC and because the ALJ provided a logical bridge between the medical evidence and his determination that the moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace did not translate into further limitations in the RFC, the Fourth Circuit determined that remand was not required under Mascio. Id.

         In other words, in calculating the RFC, the ALJ “must both identify the evidence that supports his conclusion and build an accurate and logical bridge from that evidence to his conclusion.” Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018); see also Perry v. Berryhill, No. 18-1076, 2019 WL 1092627, at *2 (4th Cir. Mar. 8, 2019). Here, the ALJ gave partial weight to a variety of medical opinions, including the opinions of treating physician, Dr. Wiley; of psychological consultative examiner, Dr. Leporowski; and of an unidentified physician at AnMed Behavioral Health.[4] (ECF No. 9-2 at 29). The ALJ also gave partial weight to the physical and mental assessments of the State agency medical and psychological consultants and to the GAF (Global Assessment of Functioning) scores on record. Id. However, in assigning each of these pieces of evidence partial weight, the ALJ did not explain which parts of the opinions, assessments, and scores he was relying on versus which parts he was discounting. Accordingly, he did not specifically identify what evidence he was relying on in reaching his RFC findings. Furthermore, the ALJ did not make any logical bridge between his assessments of this evidence and why he believed that claimant's moderate difficulties in ...

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