United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division
C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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).
otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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 ...