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Howard v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

ROMAINE HOWARD, III, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that the court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Andrew Saul's (“Commissioner”) decision denying claimant Romaine Howard, III's (“Howard”) application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Howard filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court declines to adopt the R&R, reverses the decision of the Commissioner, and remands the matter back to the Commissioner for further administrative action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.

         A. Procedural History

         Howard filed an application for SSI and DIB on June 27, 2014, alleging he had been disabled since July 15, 2011. The Social Security Administration (“the Agency”) denied Howard's application both initially and on reconsideration. Howard requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Linda Diane Taylor presided over a hearing held on February 2, 2017. In a decision issued on May 18, 2017, the ALJ determined that Howard was not disabled. Howard requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision on July 12, 2017. This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied further review on March 13, 2018.

         On May 18, 2018, Howard filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision, ECF No. 1. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on July 24, 2019, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision, ECF No. 25. Howard filed objections to the R&R on August 7, 2019, ECF No. 27, to which the Commissioner responded on August 21, 2019, ECF No. 28. The matter is now ripe for review.

         B. Medical History

         Because the parties are familiar with Howard's medical history, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead briefly recounts those facts material to its review of Howard's objections. Howard was twenty-nine years old at the time of his alleged disability onset date. Howard completed four or more years of college. He stopped working in April of 2012 because of his medical condition, which he listed as a mental illness. Howard has a varied work history, including work as a cashier, a driver's helper, an actor, a head bookkeeper, and a sales representative/office manager. In disability reports subsequently submitted by Howard, he has indicated his condition has not changed.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” 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 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. The Social Security regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Under this process, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment which equals an impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, which warrants a finding of disability without considering vocational factors; (4) if not, whether the claimant has an impairment which prevents him or her from performing past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both his or her remaining physical and mental capacities (defined by his or her residual functional capacity) and his or her vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981). The applicant bears the burden of proof during the first four steps of the inquiry, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner for the final step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992)). “If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the [sequential evaluation] process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Id. (citing Hunter, 993 F.2d at 35).

         To determine whether Howard was disabled from his alleged onset date of June 15, 2011 until the February 2, 2015, the date of his hearing, the ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ found that Howard did not engage in substantial gainful employment during the period between his alleged onset date and his date of last insured. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ determined that Howard suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Howard's impairments or combination thereof did not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in the Agency's Listing of Impairments. Tr. 18. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Howard retained the residual functional capacity to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels”, subject to the certain non-exertional limitations: “[Howard] can perform simple, routine tasks and make simple work-related decisions; can frequently respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers and the public; and time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.” Tr. 20. The ALJ found, at the fourth step, that Howard was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 28. Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ found that, considering Howard's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy; therefore, the ALJ concluded that Howard was not disabled under the meaning of the Social Security Act during the period at issue. Tr. 28-30.

         II. STANDARD

         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the Magistrate Judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the Magistrate Judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the Magistrate Judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t 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] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted).

         Although the district court's role is limited, “it does not follow . . . that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative action.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Further, although the court will not reweigh the evidence considered, the Commissioner's findings of ...


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