734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013), 13-1021, Radford v. Colvin

Docket Nº:13-1021.
Citation:734 F.3d 288
Opinion Judge:DAVIS, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:Jimmy RADFORD, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Carolyn W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:Samantha Lee Chaifetz, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Charlotte Williams Hall, Charles T. Hall Law Firm, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. David F. Black, General Counsel, Gabriel R. Deadwyler, Attorney, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryla...
Judge Panel:Before GREGORY, DAVIS, and KEENAN, Circuit Judges. Judge DAVIS wrote the opinion, in which Judge GREGORY and Judge KEENAN joined.
Case Date:October 29, 2013
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013)

Jimmy RADFORD, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Carolyn W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 13-1021.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

October 29, 2013

Argued: Sept. 17, 2013.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Samantha Lee Chaifetz, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Charlotte Williams Hall, Charles T. Hall Law Firm, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

David F. Black, General Counsel, Gabriel R. Deadwyler, Attorney, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland; Thomas G. Walker, United States Attorney, Raleigh, North Carolina, Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Michael S. Raab, Attorney, Sparkle L. Sooknanan, Attorney, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Before GREGORY, DAVIS, and KEENAN, Circuit Judges.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion.

Judge DAVIS wrote the opinion, in which Judge GREGORY and Judge KEENAN joined.

DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

Jimmy Radford applied for social security disability benefits after he sustained an injury to his back. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Radford's claim, finding, among other things, that he was not disabled because his back impairment did not " meet or equal" Listing 1.04A, the regulation identifying disorders of the spine that merit a conclusive presumption of disability and an award of benefits. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 § 1.04A. After the Appeals Board denied his request for review, Radford sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision in federal district court in North Carolina. And he won: the district court found that " the evidence as a whole compels a conclusion" that Radford met Listing 1.04A; it reversed the decision of the ALJ as unsupported by substantial evidence; and it took the extra step of remanding the case for an award of benefits.

Carolyn Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, contends on appeal that the district court applied the wrong legal standard in ruling that Radford's condition met or equaled Listing 1.04A, and that it erred in remanding with instructions to award benefits.

We hold that the district court did not err in its application of Listing 1.04A; however, we vacate the judgment of the district court because its decision to direct the ALJ to award benefits was an abuse of discretion. We order a remand to the agency for further proceedings.

I.

Title II of the Social Security Act " provides for the payment of insurance benefits to persons who have contributed to the program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The Commissioner uses a five-step process for evaluating claims for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4th Cir.2012). The Commissioner asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment

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that meets or equals the requirements of a " listed" impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-3. The claimant has the burden of production and proof at Steps 1-4. Id.

This case involves Step 3, the " listed" impairments step.1

The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations containing " listings of physical and mental impairments which, if met, are conclusive on the issue of disability." McNunis v. Califano, 605 F.2d 743, 744 (4th Cir.1979). A claimant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that he is impaired if he can show that his condition " meets or equals the listed impairments." Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 471, 106 S.Ct. 2022, 90 L.Ed.2d 462 (1986).2

At issue in this case is the listing that covers disorders of the spine: A claimant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that he is disabled if he can show that his disorder results in compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, § 1.04. Listing 1.04A further describes the criteria a claimant must meet or equal to merit a conclusive presumption of disability arising out of compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord:

[e]vidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine)[.]

20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, § 1.04A. It is the assessment of these criteria at the root of this appeal.

II.

Radford worked as a tree trimmer. In December 2002, when he was 38, he sustained an injury lifting part of a tree at work and sought emergency medical care for pain in his lower back, legs, and knees. The treating physician diagnosed a back sprain and discharged Radford with medication.

Over the next five years, Radford consulted several doctors who collectively observed— at various points in time— different symptoms of nerve root compression present in Radford.

In June 2007, Radford applied for social security disability benefits. A state agency medical consultant found that Radford had " discogenic" 3 and " degenerative" " disorders of the back," but concluded that Radford was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R.52.) A second consultant concurred.

The ALJ denied Radford's claim. The ALJ found that Radford had two severe impairments—

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lumbar degenerative disc disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder— but that neither...

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