Darby v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER adopting 17 Report and Recommendation. The Commissioner's decision is reversed pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Signed by Honorable R Bryan Harwell on 8/23/2017.(abuc)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
James B. Darby,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner )
of the Social Security Administration,
Civil Action No.: 6:16-CV-0729-RBH
Plaintiff James B. Darby (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of
a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”)
denying Plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). The matter is before the Court
for review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald,
made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) for the District of
South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge recommends the Court reverse the Commissioner’s decision and
remand the case back to the Commissioner for further consideration of medical opinions found within
the record. [ECF #17].
Factual Findings and Procedural History
The facts, including the medical timeline and evidence contained within the record, are
adequately set forth by the Magistrate Judge in the Report and Recommendation. [ECF #17, pp. 1-13].
Plaintiff has filed previous applications alleging disability beginning on April 8, 2010, that resulted in
a denial of benefits in a decision dated August 29, 2012. [ECF #10-5, Ex. B1A]. Plaintiff filed this
current application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on September 12, 2012, alleging that on
April 8, 2010, he became unable to work. Plaintiff later amended the alleged onset date to May 30,
2013. This application for benefits was denied initially and upon review. Around this same time, on
May 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). On June 14, 2014,
Plaintiff participated in a hearing, and on November 12, 2014, Plaintiff received an unfavorable
opinion. On January 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the
ALJ’s findings the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
The ALJ’s findings were as follows:
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act through December 31, 2015.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
May 30, 2013, the amended alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1571
et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: left ulnar
neuropathy, right knee degenerative joint disease with meniscus tears,
supraventricular tachycardia, and rheumatoid arthritis (20 C.F.R.
404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant 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 (20
C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant
could lift up to 20-30 pounds occasionally and lift or carry 10-15
pounds occasionally; the claimant could sit up to 4 hours out of an 8hour day and the claimant could stand and walk a total of 7 hours out
of an 8-hour day (stand 4 out of 8 hours and walk 3 out of 8 hours),
both sitting and standing/walking done with normal breaks; the
claimant could use the upper extremity to push/pull on a frequent
basis with the right (dominant) upper extremity and on an occasional
basis with the left (nondominant) upper extremity; the claimant could
use the lower extremities for the operation of foot controls on a
frequent basis bilaterally; the claimant could never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant could climb ramps or stairs up to1/2
of the work period, which is quantified as 4 hours out of 8 hours; the
claimant could frequently balance, stoop up to a frequent basis, and
occasionally crouch, kneel, and crawl; the claimant could perform
gross manipulation (handling) and fine manipulation (fingering items
no smaller than the size of a paperclip) with the left upper extremity
on an occasional basis; there is no limitation with the right
(dominant) upper extremity regarding manipulative actions (gross or
fine); the claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to excessive
vibration; there are no mental limitations.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20
C.F.R. 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on April 3, 1967, and was 46 years old,
which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged
disability date (20 C.F.R. 404. 1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate
in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564 and 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a
framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled”
whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 8241 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and
residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20
C.F.R. 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the
Social Security Act, from May 30, 2013, the amended alleged onset
date, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g) and
[ECF #10-2, pp. 59-83].
On March 8, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s
decision. [ECF #1]. Both Plaintiff and Defendant filed briefs [ECF #13, ECF #14, ECF #15], and the
Magistrate Judge issued his Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) on July 7, 2017, recommending that
the Commissioner’s decision be reversed and remanded for further consideration of the medical
opinions in the record [ECF #17, p. 21].
The Magistrate Judge recommends reversing the
Commissioner’s decision, pointing to the fact that the record does not support the ALJ’s rejection of
at least four medical opinions in forming Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity evaluation. [ECF #17,
pp. 20-21]. Defendant filed objections on July 19, 2017. [ECF #18]. Plaintiff responded to these
objections on August 1, 2017. [ECF #20].
Standard of Review
Judicial Review of the Commissioner’s Findings
The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the Act,
which provides the Commissioner’s findings “shall be conclusive” if they are “supported by substantial
evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more
than a scintilla, but less than preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964).
Substantial evidence “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).
This statutorily mandated standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that
substitutes the Court’s findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157-58
(4th Cir. 1971); Hicks v. Gardner, 393 F.2d 299, 302 (4th Cir. 1968). The Court must uphold the
Commissioner’s factual findings “if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached
through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir.
2012); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972) (stating that even if the Court
disagrees with the Commissioner’s decision, the Court must uphold the decision if substantial evidence
supports it). This standard of review does not require, however, mechanical acceptance of the
Commissioner’s findings. Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). The Court “must not
abdicate [its] responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound
foundation for the [Commissioner]’s findings, and that [her] conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d
The Court’s Review of the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to the Court. The Magistrate Judge’s
recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination
remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The Court must conduct a
de novo review of those portions of the Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) to which specific
objections are made, and it 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 must engage in a de novo review of every portion of the Magistrate Judge’s report
to which objections have been filed. Id. However, the Court need not conduct a de novo review when
a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the [C]ourt to a specific error
in the [M]agistrate [Judge]’s proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d
44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of specific objections to the R & R, the Court reviews only for
clear error, Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005), and the Court
need not give any explanation for adopting the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation. Camby v. Davis,
718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983).
Under the Act, Plaintiff’s eligibility for the sought-after benefits hinges on whether he is under
a “disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act defines “disability” 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 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant bears the ultimate burden to
prove disability. Preston v. Heckler, 769 F.2d 988, 991 n.* (4th Cir. 1985). The claimant may establish
a prima facie case of disability based solely upon medical evidence by demonstrating that his
impairments meet or equal the medical criteria set forth in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404 of Title
20 of the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) & 416.920(d).
If such a showing is not possible, a claimant may also establish a prima facie case of disability
by proving he could not perform his customary occupation as the result of physical or mental
impairments. See Taylor v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 664, 666-68 (4th Cir. 1975). This approach is
premised on the claimant’s inability to resolve the question solely on medical considerations, and it is
therefore necessary to consider the medical evidence in conjunction with certain vocational factors.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(a) & § 416.960(a). These factors include the claimant’s (1) residual functional
capacity, (2) age, (3) education, (4) work experience, and (5) the existence of work “in significant
numbers in the national economy” that the individual can perform. Id. §§ 404.1560(a), 404.1563,
404.1564, 404.1565, 404.1566, 416.960(a), 416.963, 416.964, 416.965, & 416.966. If an assessment
of the claimant’s residual functional capacity leads to the conclusion that he can no longer perform his
previous work, it then becomes necessary to determine whether the claimant can perform some other
type of work, taking into account remaining vocational factors. Id. §§ 404.1560(c)(1) & 416.960(c)(1).
Appendix 2 of Subpart P governs the interrelation between these vocational factors. Thus, according
to the sequence of evaluation suggested by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920, it must be determined
(1) whether the claimant currently has gainful employment, (2) whether he suffers from a severe
physical or mental impairment, (3) whether that impairment meets or equals the criteria of Appendix
1, (4) whether, if those criteria are met, the impairment prevents him from returning to previous work,
and (5) whether the impairment prevents him from performing some other available work.
Plaintiff has a well-documented medical history which the ALJ adequately set forth in rendering
the decision in this case. The Magistrate Judge likewise set forth Plaintiff’s extensive medical history,
which includes treatment related to neck and lower back injuries related to a motor vehicle collision,
left hand pain swelling, apparently due in part to a piece of metal lodged in his wrist, numbness in his
left upper extremity, issues with what has been described as a “racing heart” and for chest pain, right
knee pain, left knee pain, and arthritis. [ECF #17, pp. 5-12]. The Magistrate Judge considered all of
the medical testimony within the record and determined that the ALJ improperly rejected several
medical opinions from Plaintiff’s treating physicians and state agency consultants, instead formulating
his own RFC. [ECF #17, p. 21]. for this reason, the Magistrate Judge recommends remanding the case
for further consideration of the medical opinions of record.
In response, the Commissioner argues in the objections that the RFC determination is the
ultimate responsibility of the ALJ [ECF #18, p. 4]. Specifically, the Commissioner points out that the
RFC is an “assessment,” rather than a “medical” opinion. [ECF #18, p. 2].
Commissioner argues that the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation should be rejected because the
courts may not re-weigh evidence in analyzing the ALJ’s findings. [ECF #18, p. 3]. In Plaintiff’s
response to these objections, Plaintiff refutes the Commissioner’s claim that the Magistrate Judge
overlooked the fact that the RFC determination is reserved for the Commissioner and explains that the
issue, correctly pointed out by the Magistrate Judge, is that the ALJ did not provide sufficient reasons
under the established rules for rejecting all of the medical opinions and instead provided an RFC
determination that was not supported by any of the opinions of the doctors in this case. [ECF #20, pp.
The medical evidence in the record opining as to Plaintiff’s physical and mental conditions are
numerous. A non-treating, state-agency physician, Dr. Janet Boland, completed a Psychiatric Review
Technique Questionnaire indicating Plaintiff had no medically determinable mental impairments. [ECF
#10-4, Ex. B3A]. Dr. Anna P. Williams, another non-examining physician indicated the same findings
regarding Plaintiff’s mental state. [ECF #10-4, Ex. B6A]. With respect to RFC determinations, a nonexamining consultant, Dr. Michael Beinor, completed an RFC assessment on January 17, 2013 and
found Plaintiff was capable of performing sedentary work with postural, manipulative and
environmental limitations. [ECF #10-4, Ex. B3A]. A second RFC assessment was completed by nonexamining physician Dr. Dale Van Slooten on March 22, 2013, who also indicated Plaintiff was capable
of performing sedentary work with postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations. [ECF #10-4,
Ex. B6A]. On May 30, 2013, Dr. Bradberry, a treating physician, indicated that while Plaintiff did not
have any mental limitations, Plaintiff was not capable of climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, or
stairs, stoop kneel, crouch, and crawl and had “torn ligaments” in his knees. [ECF #10-9, Ex. B18F].
Dr. Bradberry further indicated on this questionnaire that Plaintiff had manipulative limitations due
to left hand numbness, no limitations on exposure to extreme heat, wetness, humidity and noise but
should avoid exposure to dust, fumes and the like due to pain and swollen joints, and further that
Plaintiff was “totally restricted and thus unable to function at a productive level of work” and needed
treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. [ECF #10-9, Ex. B18F]. On February 6, 2014, Dr. Bradberry again
completed a form indicating Plaintiff could lift less than ten pounds, stand and walk less than two
hours, sit less than two hours due to swelling, joint effusions, and pain in his lower extremities and
hands, that Plaintiff should never kneel, crouch, crawl, or stoop, and Plaintiff was limited in pushing
and pulling with his upper and lower extremities due to swelling/joint effusions/pain in lower
extremities and hands. [ECF #10-9, Ex. B20F]. On May 13, 2014, Dr. Toussaint, a treating physician,
indicated Plaintiff’s “causes of disability” were: (1) rheumatoid arthritis and (2) a previous wrist injury
severing a nerve that occurred while working. [ECF #10-10, Ex. B25F]. Dr. Toussaint also indicated
Plaintiff had severe rheumatoid arthritis and was “completely disabled” at this point. [ECF #10-10, Ex.
B25F]. Two days later, Dr. Bradberry faxed an undated note to Plaintiff’s attorney also indicating
Plaintiff was “completely disabled” and that Plaintiff’s laboratory and x-ray results support a finding
that he has advanced disease and chronic pain with ongoing joint destruction. [ECF #10-10, Ex. B26F].
Despite the medical opinions listed above, from both non-treating examiners (both of whom
opined that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work) and Plaintiff’s treating physicians, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work. Specifically, the ALJ gave little weight
to two state agency consultants, who indicated Plaintiff could perform only sedentary work, as well as
giving little weight to treating physicians Drs. Toussaint and Bradberry, both of whom indicated
Plaintiff had disabling conditions. In fact, the ALJ conceded that the opinions of both state agency
consultants were generally consistent with the treating physicians, however he still concluded that in
his opinion, the record did not support these conclusions. While it is certainly true that the RFC is an
assessment made by the ALJ, the Magistrate Judge acknowledged as much in the R&R, contrary to the
Commissioner’s objections. Even so, the Commissioner argues that the Magistrate Judge not only
failed to acknowledge this point, but also that the Magistrate Judge re-weighed the evidence rather than
analyzing this case under the substantial evidence standard of review. This Court does not agree that
the Magistrate Judge re-weighed the evidence, and further finds that it cannot determine whether
substantial evidence support the ALJ’s RFC determination in this case.
An ALJ must consider and weigh all medical opinions included in a claimant’s case. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c). Moreover, an ALJ must give the opinion of a treating physician controlling weight if
that opinion is well-supported by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques
and [are] not inconsistent with other substantial evidence” within the record. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(2). In considering the appropriate weight to give a treating physician’s opinion, an ALJ
must give good reasons in explaining the weight given such an opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
In weighing this evidence, an ALJ must avoid substituting his own medical judgment for that of the
treating physician or physicians where the opinions of the treating physicians are supported by medical
evidence. Bledsoe v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:09-CV-564, 2011 WL 549861, at *7 (S.D. Ohio 2011).
In Ferguson v. Schweiker, 765 F.2d 31, 37 (3rd Cir. 1985), the court noted that the ALJ improperly
discredited the opinions of a treating doctor when the ALJ determined that the opinions were contrary
to the objective medical evidence in the file.
The court further noted that the ALJ instead
independently reviewed and interpreted the laboratory reports in coming to a different conclusion than
the treating physician. Id; see also Ledbetter v. Colvin, No. 2:14-100-TMC, 2015 WL 4878712, at *7
(D.S.C. Aug. 14, 2015) (reversing and remanding a case where the Magistrate Judge found that “what
stands out in this case is the lack of any accepted medical opinion” and further stating that like Smiley
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 940 F. Supp.2d 592, 600-01 (S.D. Ohio 2013), the record in that case “does not
contain a single opinion from any medical source that indicates Plaintiff is functionally capable” of
performing light work.) (emphasis in original).
Similarly, here the ALJ determined that although four of the opinions from physicians on file,
two of which were from treating physicians, were all generally consistent, the record nonetheless did
not support these all seemingly similar positions. In discussing the weight of the state agency
physicians, the ALJ specifically points out that although these physicians are well-trained and wellqualified, he discounts their opinion because one doctor is a gynecologist and one is a primary care
provider. [ECF #10-2, p. 67]. He offers the same reason for giving Drs. Bradberry and Toussaint less
than full weight, in pointing out that these doctors are primary care physicians, rather than specialists.
[ECF #10-2, p. 67]. Later in his decision, the ALJ gives little weight to the treating physicians’
opinions because he states very simply, “their remarks understate the claimant’s level of physical
functioning.” [ECF #10-2, p. 69]. The ALJ’s discussion of the treating physicians’ medical records and
notes, though extensive, appear to center around picking out isolated statements within Plaintiff’s many
pages of medical records and noting that the statement appears inconsistent with another statement
somewhere else in the record. However, the ALJ does not dispute that all four of these physicians who
reviewed the medical records appear to have generally consistent findings. The Court has conducted
its own review of the medical records and has considered the fact that the ALJ rejected giving great
weight to any of the physicians’ opinions, in part because they weren’t specialists in a given area, and
instead determined that Plaintiff had the physical capacity to perform light work under the RFC, as
determined by his own assessment of the medical records. As noted by the Magistrate Judge, the record
does not contain a medical source indicating Plaintiff has the functional capacity to perform light work.
Accordingly, this Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation to reverse the ruling of
the Commissioner and remand this matter back to the Commissioner, as this Court is unable to conclude
that substantial evidence supports the findings of the ALJ based on the reasons given for rejecting four
medical opinions in the record.
The Court has thoroughly reviewed the entire record as a whole, including the administrative
transcript, the briefs, the Magistrate Judge’s R & R, Defendant’s objections to the R & R, Plaintiff’s
response to those objections, and the applicable law. For the foregoing reasons, the Court adopts the
recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. [ECF #17]. The Commissioner’s decision is reversed
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and this case is remanded to the Commissioner for
further proceedings consistent with this Order.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Florence, South Carolina
August 23, 2017
s/ R. Bryan Harwell
R. Bryan Harwell
United States District Judge
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