Coulter v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER adopting in part and rejecting in part 26 Report and Recommendation. Signed by Honorable Patrick Michael Duffy on 04/13/2017.(adeh, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
John Crawford Coulter,
Nancy A. Berryhill,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
C.A. No.: 8:16-cv-430-PMD-JDA
This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff John Crawford Coulter’s objections to
the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation (“R & R”) (ECF Nos. 28 & 26). The
Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner’s final decision denying
Coulter’s claim for social security disability benefits. For the reasons stated herein, the Court
overrules one objection, sustains another, and remands to the agency.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The R & R has no
presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the
Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270–71 (1976). Parties may make written objections to
the R & R within fourteen days after being served with a copy of it. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This
Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a specific objection is
made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify the Magistrate Judge’s findings and
recommendations in whole or in part. Id. Additionally, the Court may recommit the matter to
the Magistrate Judge with instructions. Id. A party’s failure to object is taken as the party’s
agreement with the Magistrate Judge’s conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985).
Absent a timely, specific objection—or as to those portions of the R & R to which no specific
objection is made—this Court “must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of
the record in order to accept the recommendation.’” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins.
Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee’s note).
Coulter has raised two arguments in his challenge of the Commissioner’s decision. First,
he argues the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinions of two of his physicians. Second,
Coulter contends the ALJ improperly failed to consider the combined effect of all of his
impairments when determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The Magistrate Judge
found no merit to either argument. Coulter’s two objections to the R & R correspond to his two
stated grounds for seeking judicial review. The Court addresses each seriatim.
The ALJ’s Assessment of Coulter’s Physicians’ Opinions
The record before the ALJ included opinions from two of Coulter’s physicians, Dr. David
Rogers and Dr. Stephanie Vanterpool. The ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Rogers’ opinion
regarding Coulter’s upper extremities. As for Dr. Vanterpool, the ALJ assigned significant
weight to part of her opinion about Coulter’s work capabilities; however, the ALJ found another
portion of her opinion not credible. Coulter challenged the ALJ’s assessments of those opinions,
but the Magistrate Judge concluded the ALJ appropriately weighed those opinions and explained
his assessment of each one.
Coulter now states that he objects to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion regarding the
ALJ’s assessment of Dr. Vanterpool’s opinion. 2 However, Coulter spends his objection only
1. Neither party objects to the facts, procedural history, legal standard, or standard of review set forth in the R &
R. Seeing no clear error in those portions of the R & R, the Court adopts them.
Although Coulter begins his objection by stating he objects to the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations
regarding “the opinions of treating physicians,” (Pl.’s Objs., ECF No. 28, at 1), he goes on to discuss only Dr.
arguing why he believes the ALJ erred—something he already did in his briefs, which the
Magistrate Judge considered. Coulter does not identify errors he believes the Magistrate Judge
made. That is not an appropriate objection. See, e.g., Weber v. Aiken–Partain, No. 8:11-cv2423-GRA, 2012 WL 489148, at *2 (D.S.C. Feb. 15, 2012) (noting that objections merely
rehashing arguments raised to the magistrate are insufficient to direct the court to a specific error
in an R & R).
The Court therefore overrules Coulter’s first objection.
reviewed the R & R and the record, the Court is satisfied that the Magistrate Judge made no clear
errors in her analysis of this issue. The Court therefore adopts the portion of the R & R
addressing Coulters’ physicians’ opinions.
The Combined Effects of Coulter’s Impairments
Where, as here, an ALJ determines that a claimant has multiple impairments, the ALJ
must consider the combined effects of those impairments and must “adequately explain his or her
evaluation” of those combined effects. Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989). The
ALJ must perform those tasks throughout the disability determination process. See Arant v.
Colvin, No. 2:14-cv-1539-MGL-MGB, 2015 WL 5785544, at *5 (D.S.C. Sept. 29, 2015).
The ALJ found that Coulter suffers severe impairments from ankylosing spondylosis and
Crohn’s disease, as well as non-severe impairments from gout, depression, attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder, and alcohol abuse.
Coulter claims that when the ALJ determined
Coulter’s RFC, he failed to consider the combined effects of those impairments and,
consequently, failed to explain his evaluation of them.
Vanterpool’s opinion. To the extent Coulter’s objection extends to other physicians, the objection is conclusory and
thus is overruled. See, e.g., Anderson v. Dobson, 627 F. Supp. 2d 619, 623 (W.D.N.C. 2007) (“An ‘objection’ that
does nothing more than state a disagreement with a magistrate’s suggested resolution . . . is not an ‘objection’ as that
term is used in this context.” (citation and quotation marks omitted)).
In his identification of Coulter’s impairments, the ALJ found that Coulter’s three mentalhealth impairments, even in combination, imposed only minimal limitations on Coulter’s ability
to work. Then, in his step-three analysis of whether Coulter’s impairments met or equaled any
specific listed disabling impairment, the ALJ twice wrote the following:
The undersigned [has] specifically considered the cumulative effects of the
impairments on [Coulter’s] ability to work. See Walker v. Bowen 889 F.2d 47
(4th Cir. 1989). The undersigned noted that the claimant’s impairments caused
him exertional, postural, and environmental limitations. Nonetheless, the
claimant’s impairments were not, in combination, equal to any Listing(s).
(R. 14, 15.) The ALJ then separately determined Coulter’s RFC. In that analysis, the ALJ did
not again state that he had considered the cumulative effects of Coulter’s impairments, and he
did not again cite Walker. Rather, after discussing the evidence relating to the impairments, the
ALJ concluded his RFC analysis by writing that “[w]hile the medical evidence of record
establishes the existence of the above-mentioned impairments, the objective findings do not
confirm that these impairments are of such a severity that they could reasonably be expected to
produce the degree of pain and functional limitations alleged.” (R. 19.)
The R & R implicitly acknowledges the ALJ’s failure to state explicitly that he
considered the combined effects of the impairments or to explain his evaluation of those
combined effects in his RFC analysis.
Nevertheless, the Magistrate Judge recommends
affirming on this issue because (1) the ALJ’s written decision as a whole sufficiently reflects that
he considered the combined effects of Coulter’s impairments and (2) the ALJ’s shortcomings on
the Walker requirements were harmless. Coulter objects to both of those conclusions.
The ALJ did consider the cumulative effects of Coulter’s impairments in his listings
analysis. The ALJ’s later use of the singular—“a severity” and “the degree”—tends to indicate
he also did so when he determined Coulter’s RFC. On the other hand, in the listings analysis, the
ALJ twice cited Walker and stated he had considered the cumulative effects of Coulter’s
impairments. To speak with such clarity there and then not do so again on a separate issue
strongly suggests that the ALJ did not consider the cumulative effects of Coulter’s impairments
for the specific purpose of determining Coulter’s RFC. See Seabolt v. Barnhart, 481 F. Supp. 2d
538, 547 (D.S.C. 2007) (stating the fact that an ALJ did not discuss the combined effects of
impairments “is evidence that he did not consider it”). If he did not, he erred.
To be sure, a line of cases from this district hold that Walker is satisfied “if it is clear
from the decision as a whole that the [ALJ] considered the combined effect of a claimant’s
impairments.” E.g., Brown v. Astrue, No. 0:10-cv-1584-RBH, 2012 WL 3716792, at *6 (D.S.C.
Aug. 28, 2012). The Magistrate Judge concluded the ALJ’s decision meets that standard. With
great appreciation for the Magistrate Judge’s thoughtful and thorough analysis, the Court
respectfully disagrees on this point. Although the ALJ’s decision shows he considered the
cumulative effects with regard to listings, it does not clearly demonstrate he did so for RFC. The
written decision is unclear on that issue, which is problematic in itself. Leaving the Court to
guess whether the ALJ in fact conducted the required analysis in the RFC determination
frustrates appropriate judicial review. Cf. Saxon v. Astrue, 662 F. Supp. 2d 471, 480 (D.S.C.
2009) (“[A]lthough it is possible to infer from the ALJ’s review of the medical evidence and his
RFC evaluation that he did in fact consider the combined effect of the Plaintiff’s impairments . . .
, the Court finds that such an inference falls short of the required evaluation.”).
The Court need not decide whether the ALJ in fact considered the cumulative effects of
Coulter’s impairments on Coulter’s RFC. Even if he did, remand is nonetheless necessary
because he did not explain his analysis of that issue. Indeed, even when the ALJ cited Walker,
he simply stated he had considered the cumulative effects and then moved on without any
explanation of how he analyzed that issue. Cf. Reid v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 866
(4th Cir. 2014) (quoting ALJ’s discussion of how specific impairments affected one another and
concluding the discussion satisfied Walker). The ALJ’s failure to provide his reasoning is an
error that prevents this Court from engaging in meaningful judicial review. See Patterson v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 846 F.3d 656, 662 (4th Cir. 2017) (“We cannot fill in the blanks for
the ALJ in the first instance.”); Saxon, 662 F. Supp. 2d at 480 (remanding case for “proper
consideration” of combined effects of impairments where ALJ’s failure to adequately explain his
evaluation of those effects prevented judicial review).
Although an ALJ’s failure to state his or her reasoning may be harmless error in some
instances, see Patterson, 846 F.3d at 662, the Court cannot find that error harmless here. See
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 637 (4th Cir. 2015) (refusing to hold that ALJ’s lack of stated
reasoning constituted harmless error “[b]ecause we are left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at
his conclusions” regarding an RFC assessment). In determining Coulter’s RFC, the ALJ went
beyond the standard limitations for sedentary work—significantly restrictive by themselves—
and imposed several more restrictions on Coulter’s work activities. It may well be that all those
restrictions adequately account for the cumulative effects of Coulter’s impairments. However,
that call is for the ALJ to make and then explain. After careful review of the record, this Court
cannot conclude that the outcome would be the same even if the ALJ had satisfied Walker.
Thus, the Court respectfully disagrees with the recommendation to find the ALJ’s error harmless.
Coulter’s second objection is sustained.
For the foregoing reasons, Coulter’s objections are OVERRULED IN PART and
SUSTAINED IN PART. Consequently, the R & R is ADOPTED IN PART and REJECTED
Remand, rather than reversal, is required when the ALJ fails to explain his reasoning and
ambivalence in the record prevents meaningful review. Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296
(4th Cir. 2013). As that is the case here, the Court REMANDS this matter, pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for further administrative proceedings consistent with this decision.
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
April 13, 2017
Charleston, South Carolina
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?