Shuler v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER rejecting 23 Report and Recommendation, reversing Commissioner's decision, and remanding for further administrative proceedings. Signed by Honorable David C Norton on 9/26/2014.(cahe, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
ROCK HILL DIVISION
ERIC ANTHONY SHULER,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Paige J. Gossett’s Report and
Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security
Carolyn Colvin’s decision denying plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”). Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court
rejects the R&R, reverses the Commissioner’s decision, and remands for further
Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.
Plaintiff Eric Anthony Shuler (“Shuler”) filed an application for DIB on
September 2, 2009, alleging disability beginning on January 8, 2009. The Social Security
Agency denied Shuler’s claim initially and on reconsideration. Shuler requested a
hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Linda R. Haack held a
hearing on May 16, 2011. The ALJ issued a decision on July 28, 2011, finding Shuler
not disabled under the Social Security Act. Shuler requested Appeals Council review of
the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council denied Shuler’s request for review, rendering
the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
On June 3, 2013, Shuler filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s decision.
The magistrate judge issued an R&R on June 30, 2014, recommending that this court
affirm the ALJ’s decision. Shuler filed objections to the R&R on July 17, 2014 and the
Commissioner responded to Shuler’s objections on July 30, 2014. The matter is now ripe
for the court’s review.
Because Shuler’s medical history is not relevant to the disposition of this case, the
court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead only notes a few relevant
facts. Shuler was born on March 13, 1974 and was 34 years old on the alleged onset
date. He has a ninth-grade education and past relevant work experience hanging drywall.
The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether Shuler was disabled from January 8, 2009 through July 28, 2011.
The ALJ first determined that Shuler did not engage in substantial gainful activity during
the relevant time period. Tr. 17. At the second step, the ALJ found that Shuler suffered
from the following severe impairment: post laminectomy syndrome. Id. At step three,
the ALJ determined that Shuler’s impairments or combination of impairments did not
meet or equal one of the listed impairments in the Agency’s Listing of Impairments. Tr.
19; see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App’x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ
determined that Shuler had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to: sit for six hours
and stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour work day with normal breaks, although
he should have the freedom to change positions; lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten
pounds frequently; push and pull with his upper extremities within the same pound
limitations; occasionally operate foot controls with his lower extremities; and perform
other postural activities occasionally. Tr. 19. The ALJ further determined that Shuler
could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and must avoid unprotected heights and
dangerous moving machinery. Id. The ALJ found, at step four, that Shuler was unable to
perform any past relevant work. Tr. 24. Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ found that
considering Shuler’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, he could perform jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore concluded that he
was not disabled during the period at issue. Tr. 25-26.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
Shuler objects to the R&R on two grounds, arguing the magistrate judge erred in:
(1) finding that the ALJ properly discussed the combined effect of his impairments; and
(2) finding that the ALJ properly analyzed his credibility. Because Shuler’s first
objection provides grounds for remand, the court does not consider the remaining
Federal law states that:
In determining whether an individual’s physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of a sufficient medical severity that such impairment or
impairments could be the basis of eligibility under this section, the
Commissioner of Social Security shall consider the combined effect of all
of the individual’s impairments without regard to whether any such
impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity.
42 U.S.C. § 423(B) (2012); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523 (2013) (“[W]e will consider
the combined effect of all of your impairments without regard to whether any such
impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity.”). As the Fourth
Circuit has explained, “a failure to establish disability under the listings by reference to a
single, separate impairment does not prevent a disability award.” Walker v. Bowen, 889
F.2d 47, 49 (4th Cir. 1989).
It is axiomatic that disability may result from a number of impairments
which, taken separately, might not be disabling, but whose total effect,
taken together, is to render claimant unable to engage in substantial
gainful activity. In recognizing this principle, this Court has on numerous
occasions held that in evaluating the effective [sic] of various impairments
upon a disability benefit claimant, the Secretary must consider the
combined effect of a claimant’s impairments and not fragmentize them.
Id. at 50; see also Saxon v. Astrue, 662 F. Supp. 2d 471, 479 (D.S.C. 2009) (collecting
cases that describe the importance of analyzing a claimant’s impairments both separately
and in combination). “As a corollary, the ALJ must adequately explain his or her
evaluation of the combined effects of the impairments.” Walker, 889 F.2d at 50; see also
Mazyck v. Astrue, No. 8:10-cv-2780, 2012 WL 315648, at *2 (D.S.C. Feb. 1, 2012)
(“The ALJ must consider the severe and non-severe complaints and impairments in
combination in determining the Plaintiff's disability.”). This explanation must include
more than a “generic declaration that ‘[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments
in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.’” Brown v. Astrue, No. 11-cv-03245,
2013 WL 642189, at *10 (D.S.C. Jan. 31, 2013), adopted by 2013 WL 645958 (D.S.C.
Feb. 21, 2013).
At step three of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that “[t]he
claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the criteria of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. 19. This language almost exactly mirrors the language that
was found wanting in Brown. As in Brown and Walker, the ALJ in this case failed to
analyze the cumulative effects of Shuler’s impairments. Instead, he simply noted that
Shuler’s severe impairment does not, by itself, meet or equal a listed impairment. This
explanation, and the conclusory statement that Shuler’s combination of impairments does
not meet or equal the listed impairments, fails to meet the level of analysis required by
Walker and its progeny. As a result, the court cannot discern whether the ALJ’s decision
was supported by substantial evidence and remand is appropriate.1
Based on the foregoing, the court REJECTS the magistrate judge’s R&R,
REVERSES the Commissioner’s decision, and REMANDS for further administrative
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
DAVID C. NORTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
September 26, 2014
Charleston, South Carolina
The court does not express an opinion regarding whether Shuler’s combination
of impairments would render him disabled. The opinion, as currently written, simply
does not provide enough discussion for the court to determine whether Shuler’s
impairments, in combination, meet or medically equal a listing.
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