Napier v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff benefits be REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42:405(g), for further prceedings. Signed by Magistrate Judge Katherine P. Nelson on 3/17/2014. (srr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
Civil Action No. 13-00355-N
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Sheron Napier brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security denying her applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”)
and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).
The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned
United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings in this Court pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(c). (See Doc. 26 (“In accordance with provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(c) and
Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate
Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including . . . order the entry of a
final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”); see also Doc. 27 (order
Upon consideration of the administrative record (“R.”) (Doc. 19), Napier’s brief
(Doc. 21), the Commissioner’s brief (Doc. 22), and the arguments presented at the
hearing held February 12, 2014 (see Docs. 23, 28), it is determined that the
Commissioner’s decision denying Napier benefits should be REVERSED and
REMANDED for further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.1
Napier filed applications for SSI and DIB on November 24, 2009 (R. 126-132).
As to her SSI application, Napier’s protective filing date is November 9, 2009 (see R.
58). As to her DIB application, Napier alleged she became disabled August 7, 2004
(see R. 126). Both applications were initially denied. (See R. 61-70.)
was then conducted before an Administrative Law Judge on July 12, 2011 (see R.
On September 16, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Napier not
disabled (R. 21-40), and Napier sought review from the Appeals Council.
Appeals Council issued its decision declining to review the ALJ’s determination on
May 15, 2013 (see R. 1-6)—making the ALJ’s determination the Commissioner’s final
decision for purposes of judicial review, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981—and a complaint
was filed in this Court on July 11, 2013 (see Doc. 1).
Standard of Review and Claims on Appeal
In all Social Security cases, a plaintiff (also sometimes referred to herein as a
claimant) bears the burden of proving that he or she is unable to perform his or her
Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986).
evaluating whether a plaintiff has met this burden, and thus proven that he or she is
Any appeal taken from this memorandum opinion and order and judgment
shall be made to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (See Doc. 26 (“An appeal from a
judgment entered by a Magistrate Judge shall be taken directly to the United States Court
of Appeals for this judicial circuit in the same manner as an appeal from any other judgment
of this district court.”).)
disabled, the examiner (most often an ALJ) must consider the following four factors:
(1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining
physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the plaintiff’s age, education, and work
history. Id. An ALJ, in turn,
uses a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether the
[plaintiff] is disabled, which considers: (1) whether the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant
has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the severe impairment
meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments in the
regulations; (4) if not, whether the claimant has the [residual functional
capacity, or] RFC[,] to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not,
whether, in light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education and work
experience, there are other jobs the claimant can perform.
Watkins v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed. App’x 868, 870 (11th Cir. Feb. 9,
2012) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (c)-(f), 416.920(a)(4), (c)-(f);
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004)) (footnote omitted).
If a plaintiff proves that he or she cannot do his or her past relevant work, it
then becomes the Commissioner’s burden to prove that the plaintiff is
capable—given his or her age, education, and work history—of engaging in another
kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy.
Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834,
836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, but importantly, although “the [plaintiff] bears the
burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work,
the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair
Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).
The task for this Court, then, is to determine whether the Commissioner’s
decision to deny a plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence.
Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, and means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
“In determining whether
substantial evidence exists, [a court] must view the record as a whole, taking into
account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner’s] decision.”
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).
Courts are precluded,
however, from “deciding the facts anew or re-weighing the evidence.”
Astrue, 370 Fed. App’x 995, 996 (11th Cir. Apr. 1, 2010) (per curiam) (citing Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)).
And, “[e]ven if the evidence
preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings, [a court] must affirm if the
decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.”
Id. (citing Crawford v.
Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)) (emphasis
On appeal to this Court, Napier argues that three reasons require this Court
to find that the Commissioner’s decision to deny her benefits is in error (i.e., is not
supported by substantial evidence):
The Commissioner erred in rendering a physical RFC that is not
supported by the evidentiary records and not linked to the evidence of
The Commissioner erred in failing to assess Napier’s credibility; and
The Commissioner erred in relying upon the assessment of both a
non-examining, reviewing State Agency consultant (Dr. Hinton) and a
non-examining, reviewing psychologist (Dr. McKeown, who was present
at the hearing) as the evidentiary basis for the mental RFC.
Napier’s first asserted error requires the Court to find that the ALJ’s RFC
determination is not supported by substantial evidence, which thus, triggers remand
to the Commissioner. Therefore, there is no need to consider Napier’s other two
asserted errors herein. Cf. Salter v. Astrue, No. CA 11–00681–C, 2012 WL 3817791,
at *2 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 4, 2012) (“Because the Court determines that the decision of
the Commissioner should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings based
on the plaintiff’s second claim, regarding the RFC determination, there is no need for
the Court to consider the plaintiff’s other claims.” (citing Robinson v. Massanari, 176
F. Supp. 2d 1278, 1280 & n.2 (S.D. Ala. 2001); Pendley v. Heckler, 767 F.2d 1561,
1563 (11th Cir. 1985) (“Because the ‘misuse of the expert’s testimony alone warrants
reversal,’ we do not consider the appellant’s other claims.”))).
A plaintiff’s RFC—which “includes physical abilities, such as sitting, standing
or walking, and mental abilities, such as the ability to understand, remember and
carry out instructions or to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and
work pressure”—“is a medical assessment of what th[at plaintiff] can do in a work
setting despite any mental, physical or environmental limitations caused by [his or
her] impairments and related symptoms.”
Watkins, 457 Fed. App’x at 870 n.5
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)-(c), 416.945(a)-(c)); see also Packer v. Commissioner,
Soc. Sec. Admin., 542 Fed. App’x 890, 891 (11th Cir. Oct. 29, 2013) (per curiam) (“An
RFC determination is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant’s
remaining ability to do work despite her impairments.” (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at
1440)). At the fourth step of the sequential analysis, at which the ALJ determines a
plaintiff’s RFC, an ALJ utilizes the plaintiff’s past relevant work as a starting point,
from which his or her current impairments (or at least those documented by credible
evidence) are deducted, to determine: (1) the RFC; and (2) whether that RFC allows
the plaintiff to perform his or has past relevant work or, if not, whether,
considering that RFC, along with the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience,
there are other jobs he or she can perform.2
See Watkins, 457 Fed. App’x at 870 n.5
(“The ALJ’s finding as to a [plaintiff’s] RFC is based on all the relevant evidence
in the record, including any medical evidence, and is used in steps four and five of
the sequential evaluation to determine whether the claimant can do her past
relevant work or any other work.” (citing §§ 404.1545(a)(1), (5), 416.945(a)(1), (5))
In his decision finding Napier not disabled, the ALJ’s RFC determination
details very specific physical and mental limitations, which he states were
determined “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record[.]”
Napier’s physical RFC, the ALJ found she
Indisputably, an ALJ is never going to find an RFC that is in excess of a
plaintiff’s past-relevant work, as that work is categorized by the ALJ. Therefore, if a
claimant had past relevant work in the medium and light range—as categorized by the
ALJ—an ALJ is not going to then find an RFC greater than medium work and, indeed,
might even “default” to light work. Cf. Squires v. Astrue, Civil No. 07-5096, 2008 WL
1776941, at *9 (W.D. Ark. Mar. 24, 2008) (rejecting a plaintiff’s argument “that the ALJ
[erred] in concluding that she could return to work at a heavier exertional level than she had
ever performed in the past”; in doing so, the court noted that the VE was present during the
plaintiff’s description of her past work as a caregiver and “categorized the caregiver job
based on plaintiff’s own description of the position, which would qualify the job as heavy
work” under the regulations (citations omitted)).
has the residual functional capacity to sit for 6 hours out of 8 hours, and
sit without interruption for 1 to 2 hours; stand for 6 hours out of 8
hours, without interruption 1 to 2 hours; can lift, carry, push and pull
frequently up to 15 pounds, and occasionally up to 30 pounds; can
perform simple grasping and fine manipulations with the right hand
and left hand; use feet, right, left, both, for repetitive movements such
as operating foot controls or push and pull; can occasionally bend,
stoop, crawl, climb stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds, crouch, kneel
Napier contends that these physical limitations are not supported by, and
linked to, substantial record evidence.
To find that an ALJ’s RFC determination—or any aspect of that
determination—is supported by substantial evidence, it must be shown that the ALJ
has “provide[d] a sufficient rationale to link” substantial record evidence “to the legal
Russ v. Barnhart, 363 F. Supp. 2d 1345, 1347 (M.D. Fla.
2005); compare id., with Packer v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11–0084–CG–N, 2013 WL
593497, at *4 (S.D. Ala. Feb. 14, 2013) (“[T]he ALJ must link the RFC assessment to
specific evidence in the record bearing upon the claimant’s ability to perform the
physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work.” (quoting Salter, 2012
WL 3817791, at *3)), aff’d 542 Fed. App’x 8903; see also Hanna v. Astrue, 395 Fed.
App’x 634, 636 (11th Cir. Sept. 9, 2010) (per curiam) (“The ALJ must state the
grounds for his decision with clarity to enable us to conduct meaningful review. . . .
In affirming the ALJ, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Packer’s substantial
evidence argument, noting, she “failed to establish that her RFC determination was not
supported by substantial evidence” in light of the ALJ’s consideration of her credibility and
the medical evidence. Id. at 892.
Absent such explanation, it is unclear whether substantial evidence supported the
ALJ’s findings; and the decision does not provide a meaningful basis upon which we
can review [a plaintiff’s] case.” (internal citation omitted)); Ricks v. Astrue, No. 3:10–
cv–975–TEM, 2012 WL 1020428, at *9 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 27, 2012) (“‘The existence of
substantial evidence in the record favorable to the Commissioner may not insulate
the ALJ’s determination from remand when he or she does not provide a sufficient
rationale to link such evidence to the legal conclusions reached.’
Where the district
court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner’s decision, a sentence-four
remand may be appropriate to allow him to explain the basis for his decision.”
(quoting Russ, 363 F. Supp. 2d at 1347)); compare Packer, 2013 WL 593497, at *4
(While “the Eleventh Circuit has declined to impose overly rigid requirements when
reviewing disability decisions[,] meaningful review . . . requires [that] ALJs [ ] state
with clarity the grounds for their decisions.” (internal citations and quotation marks
omitted)), with Packer, 542 Fed. App’x at 891-92 (“There is no rigid requirement that
the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence, so long as the ALJ’s decision is
not a broad rejection, i.e., where the ALJ does not provide enough reasoning for a
reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ considered the claimant’s medical condition
as a whole.” (citing Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1211)).4
It is the ALJ’s (or, in some cases, the Appeals Council’s) responsibility, not the
responsibility of the Commissioner’s counsel on appeal to this Court, to “state with clarity”
the grounds for an RFC determination.
Stated differently, “linkage” may not be
manufactured speculatively by the Commissioner—using “the record as a whole”—on
appeal, but rather, must be clearly set forth in the Commissioner’s decision. See, e.g.,
Durham v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 3:08CV839-SRW, 2010 WL 3825617, at *3 (M.D. Ala.
Sept. 24, 2010) (rejecting the Commissioner’s request to affirm an ALJ’s decision because,
While there are no medical opinions in the record to support the ALJ’s
assessment of Napier’s physical RFC, that alone is not fatal. See, e.g., McMillian
v. Astrue, CA No. 11–00545–C, 2012 WL 1565624, at *4 n.5 (S.D. Ala. May 1, 2012)
(noting that decisions of this Court “in which a matter is remanded to the
Commissioner because the ALJ’s RFC determination was not supported by
substantial and tangible evidence still accurately reflect the view of this Court, but
not to the extent that such decisions are interpreted to require that substantial
and tangible evidence must—in all cases—include an RFC or PCE from a physician”
(emphasis added, internal punctuation altered, and citation omitted)). As to the
physical RFC assessment, however, the ALJ has merely set forth his assessment
(see R. 27), laid out the record evidence and mental opinion evidence (see R. 28-34),
and assessed Napier’s credibility (see R. 32-34). The ALJ neither explains the basis
for the physical restrictions he imposes nor links his legal conclusions (i.e., the
physical restrictions he imposes) to record evidence.5
In this regard, this ALJ’s
according to the Commissioner, overall, the decision was “adequately explained and
supported by substantial evidence in the record”; holding that affirming that decision would
require that the court “ignor[e] what the law requires of the ALJ[; t]he court ‘must reverse
[the ALJ’s decision] when the ALJ has failed to provide the reviewing court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted’” (quoting
Hanna, 395 Fed. App’x at 636 (internal quotation marks omitted))); see also id. at *3 n.4 (“In
his brief, the Commissioner sets forth the evidence on which the ALJ could have relied . . . .
There may very well be ample reason, supported by the record, for [the ALJ’s ultimate
conclusion]. However, because the ALJ did not state his reasons, the court cannot evaluate
them for substantial evidentiary support. Here, the court does not hold that the ALJ’s
ultimate conclusion is unsupportable on the present record; the court holds only that the
ALJ did not conduct the analysis that the law requires him to conduct.” (emphasis in
original)); Patterson v. Bowen, 839 F.2d 221, 225 n.1 (4th Cir. 1988) (“We must . . . affirm the
ALJ’s decision only upon the reasons he gave.”).
This is significant because the ALJ found Napier suffered from two severe
failure “to show [his] work”6 is similar to the RFC assessment this Court addressed
in Hunter v. Colvin, No. CA 2:12–00077–C, 2013 WL 1219746 (S.D. Ala. Mar. 25,
Here, the ALJ summarizes the plaintiff’s testimony (see R. 17) and
makes a credibility determination as to the same (see R. 19); he
discusses the medical expert testimony from the hearing, offered by Dr.
Johns, (see R. 18) and accords it great weight (see R. 21); the ALJ
summarizes the medical evidence (see R. 18-19); and he discusses the
medical evidence in relation to each severe impairment (to find “the
claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not credible to the extent they are
inconsistent with the [his RFC] assessment”) (see R. 19-21). The ALJ,
however, fails to consider the medical and other evidence and link that
evidence—i.e., “describing how the evidence supports each
conclusion”—to his ultimate conclusion that the plaintiff retains the
ability to perform less than the full range of light work. This failure
compels the Court to conclude that the RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence, which prevents meaningful review
by this Court and requires that this matter be remanded to the
Commissioner for further consideration. See, e.g., Saunders v. Astrue,
Civil Action No. 1:11cv308–WC, 2012 WL 997222, at *5 (M.D. Ala. Mar.
23, 2012) (concluding that, where the record does not include an
evaluation of the plaintiff’s ability to perform the physical requirements
of work, “[i]t is unclear how the ALJ reached the conclusion that
Plaintiff ‘can lift and carry up to fifty pounds occasionally and
twenty-five pounds frequently’ and sit, stand and/or walk for six hours
in an eight hour workday”); cf. Dunham v. Astrue, No. 1:09CV 53
SNLJ(LMB), 2010 WL 2553878 (E.D. Mo. May 6, 2010) (“There is no
opinion from any physician, treating or consulting, regarding plaintiff’s
ability to function in the workplace with his combination of
impairments. As such, there is no medical evidence in the record
suggesting that plaintiff can, or cannot, perform light work.”) (emphasis
physical impairments: arthritis and degenerative disc disease.
(See R. 26.)
Compare Sosa v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 13–00269–N, 2014 WL 413491, at *7
(S.D. Ala. Feb. 4, 2014), with Grayer v. Colvin, No. CA 13–0292–C, 2014 WL 852451, at *13
(S.D. Ala. Mar. 5, 2014) (“The linkage requirement is simply another way to say that, in
order for this Court to find that an RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence,
ALJs must ‘show their work’ or, said somewhat differently, show how they applied and
analyzed the evidence to determine a plaintiff's RFC.” (emphasis in original)).
added), report & recommendation adopted, 2010 WL 2553882 (E.D. Mo.
June 23, 2010).
Id. at *10 (citation modified and footnote omitted). The ALJ’s assessment is, thus,
not supported by substantial evidence because this Court lacks a “sufficient
rationale to link” tangible record evidence as to Napier’s remaining ability to do
work, despite her documented severe physical impairments, “to [the] legal
conclusions [as to Napier’s physical limitations] reached” by the ALJ.
Russ, 363 F.
Supp. 2d at 1347; accord Hanna, 395 Fed. App’x at 636 (the ALJ’s decision lacks
sufficient “clarity to enable [this Court] to conduct [a] meaningful review” and thus
find that the decision is supported by substantial evidence).
It is accordingly ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying Napier benefits be REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), see Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991), for
further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision. The remand pursuant to
sentence four of § 405(g) makes the plaintiff a prevailing party for purposes of the
Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412, see Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292
(1993), and terminates this Court’s jurisdiction over this matter.
DONE and ORDERED this the 17th day of March, 2014.
/s/ Katherine P. Nelson
KATHERINE P. NELSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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