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Adger v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 11, 2019

Lisa Adger, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          JACQUELYN D. AUSTIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[1] Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be reversed and remanded for administrative action consistent with this recommendation, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In April 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset of disability date of March 7, 2014. [R. 245-46.] The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“the Administration”). [R. 141-70, 176-79.] Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and, on January 20, 2017, ALJ Gregory M. Wilson conducted a de novo hearing on Plaintiff's claim. [R. 102-40.]

         The ALJ issued a decision on February 22, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled. [R. 74-101.] At Step 1, [2] the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (?the Act”) through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 7, 2014, the alleged onset date. [R. 79, Findings 1 & 2.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments of bursitis of the hip; status post-rotator cuff surgery; degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; diabetes mellitus; depression; and anxiety. [R. 80, Finding 3.] The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had a non-severe impairment of obesity and that Plaintiff's reported carpal tunnel syndrome, diverticulitis, and heel spurs were non-medically determinable impairments because the medical evidence of record did not contain a diagnosis of these impairments from an acceptable medical source. [R. 80.] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [R. 80, Finding 4.]

         Before addressing Step 4, Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can occasionally lift twenty pounds; frequently lift ten pounds; stand and walk two out of eight hours; sit six out of eight hours; occasionally push/pull with the upper extremity; occasionally push/pull with the lower extremity; occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequently reach with the left upper extremity; frequently reach overhead; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards; and never have contact with the public.

[R. 83, Finding 5.] Based on this RFC finding, the ALJ determined at Step 4 that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as an administrative assistant. [R. 93, Finding 6.] Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [R. 94, Finding 10.] Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from March 7, 2014, through the date of the decision. [R. 95, Finding 11.]

         Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, but the Council declined review. [R. 1-7.] Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on April 12, 2018. [Doc. 1.]

         THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and that the case should be remanded. [Doc. 12.] Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to adequately support his RFC finding Plaintiff capable of light versus sedentary work [id. at 22-26] and failed to properly explain his consideration of Plaintiff's alleged limitations and symptoms in accordance with SSR 16-3p [id. at 27-31]. Plaintiff also contends the Appeals Council failed to properly consider new evidence that might have affected the Commissioner's final decision. [Id. at 32-37].

         The Commissioner, on the other hand, contends that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. [Doc. 13.] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ reasonably found Plaintiff limited to light work [id. at 11-19] and properly analyzed Plaintiff's subjective complaints [id. at 19-23]. The Commissioner further contends that the Appeals Council properly declined to review the new evidence. [Id. at 23-27.]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (“Substantial evidence, it has been held, is evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is ‘substantial evidence.'”).

         Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ), ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision). Thus, 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 Commissioner so long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012); Laws, 368 F.2d at 642; Snyder v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 518, 520 (4th Cir. 1962).

         The reviewing court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review, however, if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980); see also Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994). Where the Commissioner's decision “is in clear disregard of the overwhelming weight of the evidence, Congress has empowered the courts to modify or reverse the [Commissioner's] decision ‘with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.'” Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1158 (4th Cir. 1971) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Remand is unnecessary where “the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose.” Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).

         The court may remand a case to the Commissioner for a rehearing under sentence four or sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Shalala v. Shaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 296 (1993). To remand under sentence four, the reviewing court must find either that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the Commissioner incorrectly applied the law relevant to the disability claim. See, e.g., Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1090-91 (11th Cir. 1996) (holding remand was appropriate where the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record of the claimant's residual functional capacity); Brenem v. Harris, 621 F.2d 688, 690-91 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding remand was appropriate where record was insufficient to affirm but was also insufficient for court to find the claimant disabled). Where the court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner's decision, a remand under sentence four is usually the proper course to allow the Commissioner to explain the basis for the decision or for additional investigation. See Radford v. Comm'r, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985); see also Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1181-82 (4th Cir. 1986) (remanding case where decision of ALJ contained “a gap in its reasoning” because ALJ did not say he was discounting testimony or why); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984) (remanding case where neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council indicated the weight given to relevant evidence). On remand under sentence four, the ALJ should review the case on a complete record, including any new material evidence. See Smith, 782 F.2d at 1182 (“The [Commissioner] and the claimant may produce further evidence on remand.”). After a remand under sentence four, the court enters a final and immediately appealable judgment and then loses jurisdiction. Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 102 (1991).

         In contrast, sentence six provides:

The court may . . . at any time order additional evidence to be taken before the Commissioner of Social Security, but only upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding . . . .

         42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A reviewing court may remand a case to the Commissioner on the basis of new evidence only if four prerequisites are met: (1) the evidence is relevant to the determination of disability at the time the application was first filed; (2) the evidence is material to the extent that the Commissioner's decision might reasonably have been different had the new evidence been before him; (3) there is good cause for the claimant's failure to submit the evidence when the claim was before the Commissioner; and (4) the claimant made at least a general showing of the nature of the new evidence to the reviewing court. Borders v. Heckler, 777 F.2d 954, 955 (4th Cir. 1985) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Mitchell v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 185, 188 (4th Cir. 1983); Sims v. Harris, 631 F.2d 26, 28 (4th Cir. 1980); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)), superseded by amendment to statute, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), as recognized in Wilkins v. Sec'y, Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 925 F.2d 769, 774 (4th Cir. 1991).[3] With remand under sentence six, the parties must return to the court after remand to file modified findings of fact. Melkonyan, 501 U.S. at 98. The reviewing court retains jurisdiction pending remand and does not enter a final judgment until after the completion of remand proceedings. See Allen v. Chater, 67 F.3d 293 (4th Cir. 1995) (unpublished table decision) (holding that an order remanding a claim for Social Security benefits pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is not a final order).

         APPLICABLE LAW

         The Act provides that disability benefits shall be available to those persons insured for benefits, who are not of retirement age, who properly apply, and who are under a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). “Disability” is defined as:

the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 consecutive months.

Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         I. The Five Step Evaluation

         To facilitate uniform and efficient processing of disability claims, federal regulations have reduced the statutory definition of disability to a series of five sequential questions. See, e.g., Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 461 n.2 (1983) (noting a “need for efficiency” in considering disability claims). The ALJ must consider whether (1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals an impairment included in the Administration's Official Listings of Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant from having substantial gainful employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Through the fourth step, the burden of production and proof is on the claimant. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 191 (4th Cir. 1983). The claimant must prove disability on or before the last day of her insured status to receive disability benefits. Everett v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 412 F.2d 842, 843 (4th Cir. 1969). If the inquiry reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Grant, 699 F.2d at 191. If at any step of the evaluation the ALJ can find an individual is disabled or not disabled, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981).

         A. Substantial Gainful Activity

         “Substantial gainful activity” must be both substantial-involves doing significant physical or mental activities, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a)-and gainful-done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized, id. ยง 404.1572(b). If an individual has earnings from employment or self-employment above a specific level set out in the regulations, he is ...


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