United States District Court, D. South Carolina
RICHARD MARK GERGEL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
seeking judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). In
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule
73.02 DSC, this matter was referred to a United States
Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling. The Magistrate Judge
issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") on
June 11, 2019, recommending that the Court reverse the
decision of the Commissioner and remand the claim to the
agency for further administrative action. (Dkt. No. 17). The
Commissioner has advised the Court that she would file no
objections to the R & R. (Dkt. No. 19). As set forth more
fully below, the Court reverses the decision of the
Commissioner and remands with instructions to award benefits
from November 23, 2012.
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 the
Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The
Court is charged with making a de novo determination
of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which
specific objection is made. The Court may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the
Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme
established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. The
Act provides that 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 innumerable times
as more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance."
Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir.
1964). This standard precludes de novo review of the
factual circumstances that substitutes the Court's
findings of fact for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v.
Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971).
the federal court's review role is a limited one,
"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). Further, the Commissioner's findings of fact
are not binding if they were based upon the application of an
improper legal standard. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d
514, 519 (4th Cir. 1987).
the regulations of the Social Security Administration, the
Commissioner is obligated to consider all medical evidence
and the opinions of medical sources, including treating
physicians. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. The regulation, known
as the "Treating Physician Rule," imposes a duty on
the Commissioner to "evaluate every medical opinion we
receive." Id. § 404.1527(c). The
Commissioner "[g]enerally ... give[s] more weight to
opinions from .. . treating sources" based on the view
that "these sources are likely to be the medical
professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal
picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may
bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that
cannot be obtained from objective medical findings alone or
from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative
examinations or brief hospitalizations." Id.
§ 404.1527(c)(2). Further, the Commissioner
"[g]enerally . .. give[s] more weight to the opinion of
a source who has examined [the claimant] than to the opinion
of a source who has not examined [the claimant]."
Id. § 404.1527(c)(1).
some circumstances, the opinions of the treating physicians
are to be accorded controlling weight. Even where the
opinions of the treating physicians of the claimant are not
accorded controlling weight, the Commissioner is obligated to
weigh those opinions in light of a broad range of
specifically identified factors, including the examining
relationship, the nature and extent of the treatment
relationship, supportability of the opinions in the medical
record, consistency, and whether the treating physician is a
specialist. Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(5). The
Commissioner is obligated to weigh the findings and opinions
of treating physicians and to give "good reasons"
in the written decision for the weight given to a treating
source's opinions. SSR 96-2P, 61 Fed. Reg. 34490, 34492
(July 2, 1996).
opinions of non-examining sources and state agency medical
consultants must be weighed under the same standards of the
Treating Physician Rule, including the source's
"medical specialty and expertise . . ., the supporting
evidence in the case record, supporting explanations .. . and
other factors relevant to the weighing of opinions."
Id. §§ 404.1527(e)(2)(h). The Commissioner
further pledges that the opinions of non-examining sources
will be evaluated on "the degree to which these opinions
consider all the pertinent evidence . . ., including the
opinions of treating and other examining sources."
Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(3).
well-settled in this Circuit that "medical evaluations
made after a claimant's insured status has expired are
not automatically barred from consideration and may be
relevant to prove a disability before the claimant's
DLL" Bird v. Commissioner of Social Sec.
Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). As the
Bird court explained, "post-DLI medical
evidence generally is admissible in a SSA disability
determination in such instances in which the evidence permits
an inference of linkage with the claimant's pre-DLI
condition." Id. at 341.
the second appeal in this claim to come before the Court.
Plaintiff asserts an onset date of March 31, 2009, and his
date last insured was December 31, 2014. Tr. 671, 673. In the
initial appeal, the record was somewhat complicated by the
fact that the Plaintiff, due to the lack of insurance and
personal resources, had no regular treating physician and
received the limited medical care he did obtain from a free
medical clinic and at local emergency rooms. These records
documented complaints of chronic neck and back pain, as well
as chronic wrist pain and depression. The Social Security
Administration referred Plaintiff for an examination by Dr.
Harish Mangipudi, a regular Social Security examiner, to
obtain a comprehensive assessment of the claimant's
capacity to function in the workplace. In his examination of
February 16, 2013, Dr. Mangipudi documented Plaintiffs
history of chronic low back, cervical and shoulder pain
following a motor vehicle accident two years earlier.
Plaintiffs neck pain was described as "sharp
stabbing" and back pain as "dull, throbbing."
Dr. Mangipudi documented that Plaintiff "is not able to
ambulate without being in pain, unable to bend due to pain,
unable to squat due to pain, able to sit for 30 minutes then
has to readjust." Tr. 392. He noted that Plaintiff could
ambulate without assistance but his gait was abnormal and
"was unable to bend and squat without difficulty."
He also documented the presence of cervical and low back
paraspinal tenderness. Tr. 393.
Mangipudi conducted a physical assessment of Plaintiff using
the American Medical Association Guide to the Evaluation of
Permanent Impairments and found significant abnormalities in
the flexion and rotation of the cervical spine, flexion and
extension in the lumbar spine, abduction, elevation and
rotation of the shoulder, and flexion and deviation of the
wrist. Tr. 395. He concluded, based on "today's
examination and objective evidence gathered from the Social
Security disability file, that Plaintiff is "unable to
stand for a full workday" but was "able to sit for
a full work day." Tr. 394.
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found in the
initial decision in this case that although Plaintiff had
multiple severe mental and physical impairments, including
degenerative changes in his lumbar spine without herniation,
lower back muscle strain, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel
syndrome, anxiety disorder, and depression, he retained the
residual functional capacity to perform less than the full
range of light work. Tr. 58, 61. On appeal, this Court noted
the narrow difference between the parties, with the
Commissioner arguing that Plaintiff could still perform light
work (at less than full scope) and the Plaintiff arguing that
he was limited to sedentary work. This was noted by the Court
to be a critical difference since if Plaintiff could not
perform light work (most relevant here being unable to stand
6 hours in an eight hour day), he would be rendered disabled
under Social Security regulations from the time of his
fiftieth birthday, on November 23, 2012. (Dkt. No. 22 at 7).
order to reach the conclusion in the first administrative
decision that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work,
it was necessary for the ALJ to disregard the findings and
opinions of Dr. Mangipudi, the testimony of the Plaintiff,
and notes and findings related to Plaintiffs back and neck
abnormalities in the administrative record. The Court found
that the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Mangipudi's records
and opinions was "replete with error," noting that
he had failed to give any weight to Dr. Manipudi as an
examining physician, ignored supporting evidence of Dr.
Mangipudi's opinion in his examination and office notes,
and had basically substituted his medical opinion for that of
Dr. Mangipudi. (Id. at 9). The ALJ was instructed on
remand to evaluate Dr. ...