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Smith Mingo v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

December 19, 2019

Trenica Rashell Smith Mingo, Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew Saul, 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 Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[1] Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, 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”).[2] For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In April 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB alleging an onset of disability date of April 13, 2015. [R. 157-58.] The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration (“the Administration”). [R. 90-93; R. 95-98.] Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and, on November 16, 2017, ALJ Thaddeus J. Hess conducted a de novo hearing on Plaintiff's claims. [R. 26-56.] Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing before the ALJ.

         The ALJ issued a decision on February 20, 2018, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act (“the Act”) from April 13, 2015, through the date of this decision. [R. 13-21.] At Step 1[3], the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2020, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 13, 2015. [R. 15, Findings 1 & 2.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had medically determinable impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and obesity. [R. 15, Finding 3.] Plaintiff was also found to have a medically determinable mental impairment of anxiety, which was not severe. [R. 15.] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [R. 17, Finding 4.] At Step 4, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a desk support IT worker. [R. 19, Finding 6.] Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from April 13, 2015, through the date of the decision. [R. 21, Finding 5.]

         Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, but the Council declined review. [R. 1-6.] Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on February 14, 2019. [Doc. 1.] As noted, Plaintiff is proceeding pro se in seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         THE PARTIES' POSITIONS

         Plaintiff's initial brief does not allege any specific error by the ALJ with respect to the decision in this case. Plaintiff, instead, submitted a pro se brief in which she appears to respond, paragraph by paragraph, to the Commissioner's Answer. [Doc. 21.] Plaintiff's brief appears to challenge the Commissioner's conclusions stated in its Answer, and her arguments are provided, in relevant part, below verbatim:

5. . . . Plaintiff disagrees with the Defendant with respect that Plaintiff is entitled to judgment or relief sought due to nerve root disorder as stated in Listing 1.04A in which the Defendant failed to review.
6. . . . Plaintiff should be granted fully/partially favorable decision due to obesity which was not reviewed and is listed in records for review.
8. Plaintiff seeks favorable decision due to the inability to ambulate effectively in various circumstances.

[Doc. 21 at 1-2.] For her relief, Plaintiff requests “judgement approving the Complaint that was presented to the United States District Court on February 14, 2019, disapproving the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.” [Id. at 2.] Further, in her reply brief, Plaintiff contends the five step evaluation was not completed properly and that her use of a cane and back brace shows there is nerve root damage and pain. [Doc. 23 at 3.] Plaintiff also claims that she had no opportunity to testify and that the ALJ did not discuss the RFC with her.[4] [Id.]

         The Commissioner, on the other hand, argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. [Doc. 22.] The Commissioner contends the ALJ reasonably concluded, consistent with the opinion evidence of record, that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work. [Id. at 1.]

         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 Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (citing Woolridge v. Celebrezze, 214 F.Supp. 686, 687 (S.D. W.Va. 1963)) (“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). Sargent v. Sullivan, 941 F.2d 1207 (4th Cir. 1991) (unpublished table decision). 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. Sargent, 941 F.2d 1207 (citing 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).[5] 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 ...


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