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Goodwin v. Saul

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

August 19, 2019

Thomas Lee Goodwin, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Thomas Lee Goodwin (“Goodwin”), 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 his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (ECF No. 1). 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 this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case for further review. (ECF No. 15).[1] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. The Commissioner filed objections to the Report. (ECF No. 17). Plaintiff replied to those objections. (ECF No. 20). The matter is now ripe for review.


         Goodwin applied for DIB on July 25, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 13, 2007.[2] (ECF No. 6-2 at 13). His claim was denied both initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). Id. Goodwin then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and on July 7, 2014, the ALJ conducted a hearing on Goodwin's claim for DIB. Id. at 33-67. Goodwin was represented by a non-attorney representative at the hearing. Id. at 33. On July 30, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Goodwin was not disabled. Id. at 13 - 32. The Appeals Council denied Goodwin's request for review on November 3, 2014. Id. at 6-8.

         On March 26, 2015, [3] Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Goodwin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 2:15-cv-01386-RBH-MGB, docket entry 1 (D.S.C. Mar. 26, 2015). On December 8, 2015, this court remanded Goodwin's case to the Appeals Council for further review. Id. at docket entry 15; (ECF No. 7-4 at 35-36). The Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. Id. at 5-6. The ALJ held additional hearings on July 12, 2016, and January 9, 2017, where Goodwin was represented by a non-attorney representative. (ECF No. 7-3 at 10). At the January 9th hearing, Goodwin amended his alleged onset date to September 28, 2008. Id. at 11, 54. Following the hearing, he amended his alleged onset date to November 5, 2010. Id.; (ECF No. 7-6 at 46). On April 4, 2017, the ALJ issued a second decision and again found that Goodwin was not disabled. (ECF No. 7-3 at 7-35).

         In his decision, the ALJ found Goodwin met the insured status requirements under the Act through December 31, 2013, and that Goodwin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 5, 2010, the alleged onset date of disability. Id. at 13. The ALJ further determined that Goodwin suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, depressive disorder, plantar fasciitis, and migraine headaches. Id. In reviewing all of Goodwin's impairments, the ALJ concluded that he 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 14. Additionally, the ALJ calculated Goodwin's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determined that he could perform simple, routine tasks at the light exertional level as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with various limitations.[4] Id. at 14-15. Because of these limitations, the ALJ determined that Goodwin is unable to perform his past relevant work as a maintenance repairer, building (medium, skilled), and fire control equipment repairer mechanic (medium, skilled). Id. at 28. However, the ALJ determined that based on Goodwin's age, education, work experience, and RFC calculation, there were “jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [he] could have performed.” Id. at 29. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Coleman was not disabled as defined in the Act. Id. at 30.

         Goodwin subsequently appealed to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied Goodwin's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for judicial review purposes. (ECF No. 7-3 at 2-5). This action followed.


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


         In his Report, the magistrate judge recommends that the decision of the Commissioner be reversed and remanded for further consideration. (ECF No. 15). The Commissioner objects to the magistrate judge's determination that there was an apparent conflict between “simple, routine tasks” and a General Educational Development (“GED”) reasoning level of 2. (ECF No. 17). Specifically, the Commissioner asserts that the magistrate judge erred in relying on Henderson v. Colvin, 643 Fed. App'x 273 (4th Cir. 2015), and that decisions from outside of this district have found there to be no such apparent conflict. Id.

         In considering an application for disability benefits, an ALJ uses a five-step process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). At Step Five of this sequential process, the ALJ “considers the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity to decide whether he can perform alternative work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). While the claimant bears the burden of proof as to the first four steps in the process, at this fifth and final step, the burden is on the Commissioner to prove that the claimant can perform alternate work. Id. At this step in the process, the ALJ relies primarily on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), though the ALJ may also rely on a vocational expert (“VE”) “to address complex aspects of the employment determination, including the [VE]'s observations of what a particular job requires.” Id. However, the ALJ must “inquire, on the record” whether the VE testimony conflicts with the DOT. Id. (citations omitted). The ALJ must then “elicit a reasonable explanation for the conflict before relying on the VE [] evidence to support a determination or decision about whether the claimant is disabled.” SSR 00-4p, at *2.

         Nonetheless, an ALJ has not fulfilled his affirmative duty “merely because the VE responds ‘yes' when asked if [his] testimony is consistent with the [DOT].” Pearson, 810 F.3d at 208. Instead, the ALJ must independently identify any apparent conflicts between the VE testimony and the DOT. Id. at 209. This apparent conflict standard “embraces the reality that, in many case, testimony may only appear to conflict with the [DOT], and the [VE] may be able to explain that, in fact, no conflict exists.” Id. However, if the ALJ does not illicit an ...

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