Cagle v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

Filing 20

ORDER remanding action to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) for further proceedings as noted within the order. Signed by Honorable Joseph F Anderson, Jr on 9/20/10.(hhil, )

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT F O R THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA ) ) Plaintiff, ) v. ) ) Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of ) S o c ia l Security, ) ) D e f e n d a n t. ) ______________________________________ ) J e rry L. Cagle, C /A No. 2:09-115-JFA-RSC ORDER T h e plaintiff, Jerry L. Cagle, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) to o b tain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (C o m m is s io n e r) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental s e c u rity income (SSI) benefits under the Social Security Act. The Magistrate Judge assigned to this action 1 has prepared a Report and R e c o m m e n d a tio n wherein he suggests that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is su p p o rte d by substantial evidence and that such decision should be affirmed. The Report sets fo rth in detail the relevant facts and standards of law on this matter, and the court in c o rp o ra te s such without a recitation. T h e parties were advised of their right to submit objections to the Report and The Magistrate Judge's review is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02. The M a g i s tr a te Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the r e s p o n s i b i l it y to make a final determination remains with the court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made and t h e court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge, or recommit th e matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1). 1 1 R e c o m m e n d a tio n . The plaintiff has submitted timely objections and the Commissioner has re p lie d to such objections. PROCEDURAL HISTORY T h e plaintiff previously filed applications for DIB and SSI on August 26, 2003. These a p p lic a tio n s were denied initially on November 6, 2003 and were not appealed. The plaintiff again applied for SSI on April 12, 2005 alleging disability as of January 1 0 , 2003 due to inflammatory musculoskeletal impairments and depressive disorder with s o m e anxiety. Plaintiff also alleges disability due to mental problems, no energy, fatigue, a n x ie ty, depression, impaired memory, hallucinations, chronic back and neck pain, stiffness a n d joint pain, arthritis, knee and hand joint pain, and instability. The plaintiff was 50 years old at the time of the decision denying benefits. He has a n inth grade education and past relevant work experience as a boiler maker and sandblaster. T h e plaintiff's SSI application was denied initially and on reconsideration. The A d m in is tra tiv e Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on March 17, 2008 and issued a decision on N o v e m b e r 19, 2008, concluding that the claimant was not disabled. Once approved by the A p p ea ls Council, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. P la in tif f thereafter filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) seeking judicial review o f the final decision of the Commissioner. STANDARD OF REVIEW T h e role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social S e c u rity Act is narrowly tailored "to determining whether the findings are supported by 2 s u b s ta n tia l evidence and whether the correct law was applied." Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 2 8 7 , 290 (4th Cir.2002). Section 205(g) of the Act provides, "[t]he findings of the C o m m iss io n e r of Social Security, as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall b e conclusive ..." 42 U.S.C. 405(g). The phrase "substantial evidence" is defined as: e v id e n c e which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a p a rtic u la r conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but m a y be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a re f u sa l to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is `substantial e v id e n c e .' S h iv e ly v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir.1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 6 4 0 , 642 (4th Cir.1966)). In assessing whether there is substantial evidence, the reviewing c o u rt should not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility d e te rm in a tio n s , or substitute [its] judgment for that of" the agency. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 1 7 1 , 176 (4th Cir.2001) (alteration in original). T h e Commissioner is charged with determining the existence of a disability. The S o c ia l Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 301-1399, defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or m e n ta l impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be e x p e c te d to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. 4 2 3 (d )( 1 )( A ) (2004). This determination of a claimant's disability status involves the following five-step i n q u iry: whether (1) the claimant is engaged in substantial activity; (2) the claimant has a m ed ic a l impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's 3 m e d ica l impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in A p p e n d ix I of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P; (4) the claimant can perform [his or] her past re le v a n t work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work. Johnson v. B a r n h a r t, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n. 1 (4th Cir.2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) (20 0 5 )). If the claimant fails to establish any of the first four steps, review does not proceed to the next step. See Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1993). The burden of p r o d u c tio n and proof remains with the claimant through the fourth step. However, if the c laim a n t successfully reaches step five, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to p ro v id e evidence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy that a claimant c o u ld perform. See Walls, 296 F.3d at 290. This determination requires a consideration of " w h e th e r the claimant is able to perform other work considering both his remaining physical a n d mental capacities (defined as residual functional capacity) and his vocational capabilities (a g e , education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 2 6 0 , 264-65 (4th Cir.1981). If the claimant is found to have the ability to adjust to other w o r k , the Commissioner will not find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g)(2). D ISCUSSION T h e ALJ's Findings In his decision of November 19, 2008, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform unskilled light work in a lo w stress environment with no requirement for interaction with the public; (2) plaintiff was 4 u n a b le to perform his past relevant work; (3) there were a significant number of other jobs i n the national economy that plaintiff could perform; and (4) plaintiff was not under a " d is a b ility" as defined by the Act at any time through the date of his decision. T h e Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendations and Plaintiff's Objections The Magistrate Judge suggests that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. T h e plaintiff has filed an 18-page objection memorandum to which the Commissioner has re sp o n d e d . Plaintiff summarily objects to the Report and asserts that the ALJ and Magistrate J u d g e ' s decisions are not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff requests that the case b e remanded to the ALJ for further evaluation of plaintiff's ability to satisfy the requirements o f "light work" and evaluate the new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council. The C o m m iss io n e r contends that the plaintiff merely reiterates his previously made arguments th a t have been addressed in the briefs and the Report and Recommendation. A s an initial matter, plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge failed to recommend th a t this matter be remanded for another hearing to allow the ALJ to consider the significant a d d i ti o n a l evidence submitted to the Appeals Council. After plaintiff's applications were d e n ie d , the plaintiff retained new counsel to represent him. New counsel obtained additional e v i d e n c e to submit to the Appeals Council including examination notes and a questionnaire o f Dr. LeBlanc of Black River Healthcare. These submissions were dated September 3 and 1 6 , 2008, noting plaintiff's chronic hand pain and opining that the plaintiff has significant a rth ritis in his knees and hands which have been treated with steroid injections. Dr. LeBlanc a lso opined that the degree of arthritis in plaintiff's knees would prevent him from being able 5 to stand and/or walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday and that the arthritis in plaintiff's h a n d s would interfere with his ability to perform fine and gross movements effectively and re p e titiv e ly. Plaintiff asserts that Dr. LeBlanc has been treating the plaintiff for a period of tim e and is his primary physician. P l a i n t if f represents to the court that the Appeals Council did not address the new e v id e n c e in its decision and issued a form denial. The court is well aware of the conflicting c a se law on the issue of whether the Appeals Council must articulate and state reasons for th e assessment of additional evidence. Nevertheless, it is reasonably possible that the a d d i ti o n a l medical evidence submitted to the Appeals Council could be material to the ALJ's d e c is io n that the plaintiff could perform light work, to include standing or walking for a p p ro x im a te ly 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Without a reasoned decision on the new evidence and a continuation of the sequential e v a lu a tio n process, if necessary, the court cannot determine whether substantial evidence s u p p o rts the Commissioner's decision. Therefore, the additional evidence that was presented to the Appeals Council needs further development. C O N C LU S IO N I t is the duty of the ALJ reviewing the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and resolve conflicts in the evidence. This court's scope of review i s limited to the determination of whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported b y substantial evidence taking the record as a whole, Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th C ir. 1996), and whether the correct law was applied," Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 6 (4 th Cir. 2002). After a careful review of the record, including the findings of the ALJ, the briefs from th e plaintiff and the Commissioner, the Magistrate Judge's Report, and the parties objections th e re to , the court remands this action to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U .S .C . 405(g) for further proceedings as noted herein. IT IS SO ORDERED. S ep t e m b e r 20, 2010 C o lu m b ia , South Carolina J o s e p h F. Anderson, Jr. U n ite d States District Judge 7

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