United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division
October 23, 2014
DEANA FAY JUDD, Plaintiffs,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendants.
RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 10, 14).
Pursuant to U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), United State Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler was designated to consider and recommend disposition of the aforesaid motions. In a Memorandum and Recommendation ("M & R") filed November 26, 2013, the Magistrate Judge opined that Plaintiff Judd's Motion for summary judgment be denied; that Defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted; and the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Doc. 15).
Plaintiff filed an objection to the M & R on December 13, 2013. (Doc. 16). Defendant has not replied.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Federal Magistrate Act provides that "a district court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specific proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983); Keeler v. Pea, 782 F.Supp. 42, 43 (D.S.C. 1992). The statute does not require de novo review when an objecting party makes only general or conclusory objections that do not direct the court to the specific error in the magistrate judge's recommendations. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315-16 (4th Cir.2005); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). Further, the statute does not on its face require any review at all of issues that are not the subject of an objection. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149, 106 S.Ct. 466, 88 L.Ed.2d 435 (1985); Camby, 718 F.2d at 200. Nonetheless, a district judge is responsible for the final determination and outcome of the case, and accordingly the Court has conducted a careful review of the Magistrate Judge's M & R as well as a de novo review of the matters specifically raised in the Plaintiff's Objections.
II. Objections to the Memorandum and Recommendation
Plaintiff specifically objects to the M & R on the basis that the Magistrate Judge stated that he was "not persuaded by the ALJ's alleged failure to consider Dr. Scott's opinion amounts to error in this case." (Doc. 16) (quoting M & R, Doc. 15, at 9). Plaintiff then states "there is insufficient legal analysis to support the ALJ's RFC determination. The Defendant is not entitled to rely on post hoc rationalization to support critical findings that the ALJ did not make." (Doc. 16, at 2). The crux of Plaintiff's objection relates to her opinion that "the ALJ failed to properly explain her reasoning." (Doc. 16, at 2). Plaintiff cites Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013) for the proposition that "the ALJ's failure to adequately explain [her] reasoning precludes the Court from undertaking a meaningful review.'" Plaintiff then states "[b]riefly, the ALJ erred in failing to provide a rationale for not including all of Plaintiff's physical, cognitive, and psychological limitations in her RFC analysis." (Doc. 16, at 2).
III. BACKGROUND OF LAW
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has established a five-step evaluation process, which proceeds sequentially, for determining whether an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at one step, the SSA or Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will issue a decision without proceeding to the next step in the evaluation. A claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined after step three has been completed, but before step four is begun, in order to determine what level of physical and mental exertion the claimant can perform at work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) and § 416.945(a). The ALJ determines the RFC by assessing claimant's ability to do physical and mental activities on a sustained basis, despite limitations from identified impairments and claimed symptoms that are reasonably consistent with objective medical evidence and supported by other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 404.1545, 416.929, and 416.945.
With regards to medical opinions, SSR 96-8p provides that "[t]he RFC assessment must always consider and address medical source opinions. If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the adjudicator must explain why the opinion was not adopted." "In determining whether you are disabled, we will always consider the medical opinions in your case record together with the rest of the relevant evidence we receive." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). "Regardless of its source, we will evaluate every medical opinion we receive." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). "If any of the evidence in your case record, including any medical opinion(s), is inconsistent, we will weigh the relevant evidence and see whether we can determine whether you are disabled based on the evidence we have." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).
"The adjudicator must... explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were resolved" in making the RFC assessment. SSR 96-8p. "Ultimately, it is the duty of the administrative law judge reviewing a case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). "A necessary predicate to engaging substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling." Radford, 734 F.3d at 296. "The record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence." Id. "If the reviewing court has no way of evaluating the ALJ's decision, then the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.'" Id. (quoting Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985)).
The ALJ found that:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that the claimant should: [sic] some ability to change positions - does not have to be a sit/stand option; no more than occasional climbing ropes, ladders or scaffolds; no more than frequent on all the other postural limitations; avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, gases, odors, poor ventilation and dust; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards; engage in unskilled work that is fairly simple (1-2 step operations, preferably).
(Doc. 6-3, at 24).
The ALJ stated she made the RFC assessment "[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record." (Doc. 6-3, at 24). The ALJ stated that she had
considered all symptoms to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR 416.929 and SSRS 96-4p and 96-7p. I have also considered opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 CFR 416.927 and SSRS 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p and 06-3p.
(Doc. 6-3, at 25).
In its decision, the ALJ cites the opinions of Dr. Timothy Johnston, Dr. Jerelene Howell, and two psychological assessments made by State agency medical consultants. (Doc. 6-3, 25-26). Plaintiff's objection seeks remand on the basis that the ALJ did not address the opinion of Dr. Scott (Doc. 16).
Dr. Scott opined that Plaintiff has difficulty dealing with written instructions; performing tasks requiring writing; would require reminders to keep her on task; is sensitive to perceived criticism; and would have difficulty adapting to the demands of a forty-hour work week. (Doc. 6-8, at 26).
Dr. Howell opined that "[c]onsidering her physical and cognitive challenges, it would be difficult for Ms. Judd to cope with the demands and stresses inherent in some work situations. She would likely have difficulties working in an environment that requires problem solving and decision making. Considering, he[r] psychomotor speed, she may also have difficulty keeping up in a fast paced work environment." (Doc. 6-8, at 95). She also stated "[t]here appeared to be no deficiencies in pace, concentration, and attention during the assessment." ( Id. ).
The ALJ only generally cited to the opinions by the state agency consultants, and then stated "[t]o the extent these assessments are consistent with the residual functional capacity as determined herein, they are assigned weight." (Doc. 6-3, at 26). The applicable statutes and regulations require not only a determination of what is credible, but also why the ALJ found it credible. As in Radford, "[t]he ALJ cited the state medical opinions in support of h[er] conclusion, but that is not enough to constitute substantial evidence.' Even if the ALJ's... citation to those opinions indicates the (apparently very high) evidentiary weight he placed on them, it does not indicate why the opinions merit that weight." 734 F.3d at 295.
The Court recognizes the ALJ did "assign more limitations to the residual functional capacity" than the state consultants assessed. (Doc. 6-3, at 26). Specifically, the ALJ assigned the following limitation - "engage in unskilled work that is fairly simple (1-2 step operations, preferably)." (Doc. 6-3, at 24). However, the ALJ did not absolutely (nor was he required to) adopt the limitations that Dr. Scott found Ms. Judd had. As such, the ALJ was required to provide a basis for his reasoning for doing so. Here, "the ALJ's failure to adequately explain his reasoning precludes this Court... from undertaking a meaningful review' of [the ALJ's RFC finding]." Radford, 734 F.3d at 296. It is not the province of this Court to weigh Dr. Scott's testimony in the first instance. Id.
IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED that
(1) The final decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g) to
a. To develop the record in accordance with the opinion above;
b. To perform a Function-By-Function analysis in accordance with SSR 96-8 and regulations;
c. Evaluate Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments under the four broad functional areas as required by SSR 96-8p and regulations; and
d. Evaluate Plaintiff's alleged obesity when making the RFC determination.
(2) The Memorandum and Recommendation (Doc. 15) not be adopted;
(3) Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 10) seeking remand is GRANTED; however, inasmuch as Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment seeks this Court to direct the Commissioner to award benefits it is DENIED; and
(4) Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 14) is DENIED.