Littlehale v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER RULING ON REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION adopting 31 Report and Recommendation, reversing the decision of the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. Signed by Honorable Mary Geiger Lewis on 03/10/2016. (bshr, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
JAMES ALBERT LITTLEHALE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-01460-MGL
ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
AND REVERSING AND REMANDING THE MATTER FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS
This is a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision
of Defendant denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security
Income (SSI). Plaintiff is proceeding pro se. The matter is before the Court for review of the Report
and Recommendation (Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting to the Court that
this matter be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Report was made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule
73.02 for the District of South Carolina.
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has
no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court.
Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo
determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the Court may
accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or
recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court need not conduct a de
novo review, however, “when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct
the court to a specific error in the [Magistrate Judge’s] proposed findings and recommendations.”
Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).
The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on February 19, 2016, and Defendant filed her
objections on March 7, 2016. The Court has carefully reviewed Defendant’s objections, but finds
them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.
Plaintiff filed his application for DIB and SSI on March 22, 2012, asserting that his disability
commenced on January 1, 2009. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which the ALJ conducted
on June 26, 2014. Then, on August 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was
not disabled under the Act. Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review
of the ALJ’s decision; accordingly, the ALJ’s decision became Defendant’s final decision for
purposes of judicial review. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court, seeking judicial review of
Defendant’s final decision denying his claim.
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process
for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The five steps
are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the
claimant has a medically determinable severe impairment(s); (3) whether such impairment(s) meets
or equals an impairment set forth in the Listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevents the
claimant from returning to his past relevant work; and, if so, (5) whether the claimant is able to
perform other work as it exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v),
It is Plaintiff’s duty to both produce evidence and prove that he is disabled under the Act.
See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). And, it is the duty of the ALJ, not this
Court, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d
1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Under the substantial evidence standard, however, we must view the
entire record as a whole.
See Steurer v. Bowen, 815 F.2d, 1249, 1250 (8th Cir. 1987).
“Additionally, the substantial evidence standard presupposes a zone of choice within which the
decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision
is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite
decision.” Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988) (citations omitted) (internal
quotation marks omitted) (alteration omitted).
Defendant raises three specific objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report. The Court will
address each one in turn.
First, Defendant argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ neglected to
sufficiently consider the opinion of Dr. David J. Yatsonsky, M.D., in determining that Plaintiff was
limited to light work. Objections 2. According to Defendant, the ALJ fully considered the evidence,
including Dr. Yatsonsky’s evaluation, in determining that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 2-4. The
Court is unpersuaded.
The ALJ “must consider all the evidence and explain on the record the reasons for his
findings, including the reason for rejecting relevant evidence in support of the claim.” King v.
Califano, 615 F.2d 1018, 1020 (4th Cir. 1980). “Even if legitimate reasons exist for rejecting or
discounting certain evidence, [the ALJ] cannot do so for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Id.
Further, the Court “cannot determine if findings are unsupported by substantial evidence unless [the
ALJ] explicitly indicates the weight given to all of the relevant evidence.” Gordon v. Schweiker,
725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984). “Unless [the ALJ] has analyzed all the evidence and has
sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his
decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court’s duty to
scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.” Arnold
v. Sec’y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977) (citation omitted) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
Nevertheless, Defendant is correct that an ALJ “is not required to comment in the decision
on every piece of evidence in the record, and the ALJ’s failure to discuss a specific piece of evidence
is not an indication that the evidence was not considered.” Objections 3 (citation omitted) (internal
quotation marks omitted). The duty of explanation is satisfied “[i]f a reviewing court can discern
what the ALJ did and why he did it.” Piney Mountain Coal Co. v. Mays, 176 F.3d 753, 762 n.10
(4th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Having reviewed the record under the standard set forth above, the Court is unable to say that
it can discern what the ALJ did and why he did it. As the Magistrate Judge notes, the ALJ failed
to address Dr. Yatsonsky’s opinion and neglected to reconcile the opinions of the state agency
consultants with Dr. Yatsonsky’s findings. Thus, the Court will overrule Defendant’s first objection.
Second, Defendant contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in suggesting that the ALJ
neglected to consider Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and medication side effects when assessing
Plaintiff’s credibility. Objections 4-6. The Court disagrees.
In making a credibility determination, the ALJ must take into account, among other things,
“any other evidence relevant to the severity of the impairment, such as evidence of the claimant’s
daily activities, specific descriptions of the pain, and any medical treatment taken to alleviate it.”
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 595 (4th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). After having established the
existence of a condition reasonably likely to cause the alleged symptoms, a claimant may “rely
exclusively on subjective evidence to prove” the intensity, persistence, and functionally-limiting
effects of his symptoms. See Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 565 (4th Cir. 2006). Moreover,
although the Court must defer to the ALJ’s findings of fact, the Court is not required to “credit even
those findings contradicted by undisputed evidence.” Id. at 566.
Here, the ALJ’s decision reflects no meaningful consideration of Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints and medication side effects, and, thus, the ALJ’s assessment of Plaintiff’s credibility is
deficient and unsupported by substantial evidence.
Consequently, the Court will overrule
Defendant’s second objection.
Third, Defendant propounds that the Magistrate Judge erred in concluding that the ALJ failed
to consider the effect of Plaintiff’s combined impairments when addressing any sitting, standing, and
walking limitations in his RFC analysis. Objections 6-7. The Court is unconvinced.
It has long been established “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 [the
plaintiff] unable to engage in substantial gainful activity.” Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th
Cir. 1989). The ALJ “must consider the combined effect of [the plaintiff’s] impairments and not
fragmentize them.” Id. “As a corollary to this rule, the ALJ must adequately explain his or her
evaluation of the combined effects of the impairments.” Id.
In this case, the ALJ indicated he had considered Plaintiff’s “subjective complaints along
with the combination of [Plaintiff’s] obesity, poorly controlled diabetes mellitus, and his arthritis
and found that [Plaintiff] is limited to no more than light work with the above stated specific
limitations.” ECF No. 21-2 at 27. However, although the ALJ stated that he considered the
combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments, the RFC determination fails to reflect such consideration,
and the ALJ’s decision neglects to reconcile the RFC evaluation with the evidence of Plaintiff’s
combined impairments when addressing Plaintiff’s sitting, standing, and walking limitations. Thus,
the ALJ failed to comply with Walker’s requirements, and Plaintiff is entitled to have his claims
remanded for proper consideration. The Court will therefore overrule Defendant’s third objection
After a thorough review of the Report and the record in this case under the standard set forth
above, the Court adopts the Report and incorporates it herein. Therefore, it is the judgment of the
Court that this matter is REVERSED AND REMANDED for further administrative proceedings
under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Signed this 10th day of March, 2016, in Columbia, South Carolina.
s/ Mary Geiger Lewis
MARY GEIGER LEWIS
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
NOTICE OF RIGHT TO APPEAL
The parties are hereby notified of the right to appeal this Order within thirty days from the
date hereof, pursuant to Rules 3 and 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.
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