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Keith v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

March 29, 2019

Kristal G. Keith, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Before the court for review is the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) filed on October 22, 2018 (ECF No. 24). The Report addresses Plaintiff Kristal G. Keith's claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and recommends that the court reverse the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”), which denied Plaintiff's claim. (ECF No. 24 at 1.) For the reasons stated herein, the court ACCEPTS IN PART and REJECTS IN PART the Report, and REVERSES and REMANDS this matter for further administrative opinions consistent with this Order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Report sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which this court incorporates herein without a full recitation. (ECF No. 24 at 1-20.) As background, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on May 19, 2011, which was denied initially by the Commissioner. (Id. at 1.) After an administrative hearing on November 13, 2012, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision against Plaintiff on December 13, 2012, finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 10-2 at 13, 16.) Plaintiff requested review of the decision by the Appeals Council (“the Council”), which, on April 14, 2014, was denied. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, [1] which vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for further consideration. (ECF No. 10-14 at 5-15.) Pursuant to the court's remand order, the Council vacated the December 2012 decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to the ALJ “for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court.” (Id. at 15.)

         On remand, the ALJ held administrative hearings on October 13, 2015, and February 25, 2016. (ECF No. 10-13 at 36-38, 62-64.) On March 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision against Plaintiff. (Id. at 14.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff “d[id] not have an impairment or combination of impairments that me[t] or medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in . . . 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR [§§] 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” (Id. at 20.) Additionally, Plaintiff had the RFC

to perform light work[2] . . . except:
• [Plaintiff] can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and kneel
• [Plaintiff] can frequently climb ramps, stairs, balance, crouch and crawl
• [Plaintiff] is limited to work in a low stress[, ] stable work environment with few[, ] if any[, ] changes in work processes in which [Plaintiff] would not have to perform more than routine, repetitive tasks requiring no more than a 4th grade reading or math level, involving simple work[-]related decisions and short, simple instructions, that could be given orally and by demonstration
• [Plaintiff] cannot engage in production rate pace
• [Plaintiff] cannot interact with the public
• [Plaintiff] can engage in only occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors and cannot work on a team

(Id. at 23-24.) After considering Plaintiffs RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determined that through the date last insured, “there [we]re jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] c[ould] [have] performed.” (Id. at 28.) On this basis, the ALJ denied SSI to Plaintiff because she was not disabled under the Social Security Act “since May 19, 2011, the date the application was filed.” (Id. at 29.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Council, which was denied on December 19, 2016. (Id. at 6.) Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.) See also Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011) (stating that an ALJ's decision was the final decision of the Commissioner when the Council denied a request for review); Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 336 (5th Cir. 2005) (holding that the Commissioner's “final decision” includes when the Council denies a request for review of an ALJ's decision).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on September 22, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff asserted one error by the ALJ: “[t]he ALJ failed to adequately consider whether Plaintiff met the requirements of Listing 12.05C, and the evidence establishes she met this [L]isting.” (ECF No. 19 at 1.) Plaintiff argues

[t]he ALJ's evaluation of Listing 12.05C evinces obvious error, in that he entirely failed to consider whether Plaintiff demonstrated “deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22.” 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1, § 12.05C (eff. August 12, 2015 to May 23, 2016) (emphasis added). The ALJ's conclusory statement that Plaintiff “show[ed] significant independence of functioning” did not suffice to adequately consider whether she showed the required deficits in adaptive functioning.

(Id. at 18.)

The Commissioner filed a Brief on May 14, 2018, arguing
Plaintiff's argument is unpersuasive because she fails to appreciate that Prong 1 has two components. If the ALJ finds: (1) “no deficits in adaptive functioning generally, ” or (2) “no deficiency manifested itself before the age of 22, ” then “[e]ither finding alone, if supported by substantial evidence, would be sufficient to support the conclusion that [the claimant] did not satisfy Prong 1.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 475 (4th Cir. 2012). Here, [the] ALJ . . . focused on the first component, “no deficits in adaptive functioning generally.” [The] ALJ . . . did not address the second component (“no deficiency manifested itself before the age of 22”) because Plaintiff failed the first component, and therefore, Plaintiff's condition did not satisfy Prong 1 as a matter of law.

(ECF No. 21 at 1.) The Commissioner also argues “Plaintiff has not challenged the ALJ's findings with respect to the evidence related to her ‘deficits in adaptive functioning generally,' and therefore, her argument fails and she has waived the issue.” (Id. at 10.)

         Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief on May 29, 2018. (ECF No. 22.) As to the Commissioner's waiver argument, Plaintiff asserts that her Brief

clearly argues that she maintained current deficits in adaptive functioning, including that she could read only basic children's books and did not understand most of the words, she could not pass a driver's permit test because she could not understand the questions, she could not read a newspaper, she could not add or subtract without the aid of a calculator, she could not multiply or divide, and she could not make change when purchasing items at a store.

(Id. at 2-3.)

         The Magistrate Judge entered her Report on October 22, 2018. (ECF No. 24.) First, the Magistrate Judge observed that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has established a three-prong test to prove intellectual disability under Listing 12.05(C). (Id. at 18.) The first prong (Prong 1) “consists of two separate elements-deficits in adaptive functioning generally and a deficiency that manifested itself before age 22.” (Id. (citing Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 473, 475 (4th Cir. 2012)).) As for the remaining prongs, the Magistrate Judge explained that

[p]aragraph C “requires ‘[a] valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70' (‘Prong 2'), as well as ‘a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function' (‘Prong 3').” Id. at 473 (alteration in original). “Once it is established that the claimant's IQ falls within the range required by § 12.05(C), the inquiry is whether the claimant suffers from any additional physical or mental impairment significantly limiting work-related functions.” Kennedy v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 168, 172 (4th Cir. 1984). “An impairment which imposes an additional and significant work-related limitation of function is any impairment ...

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