Wallace v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 8:14-cv-04395-DCN-JDA

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
PartiesJoyce Ann Wallace, Plaintiff, v. Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 8:14-cv-04395-DCN-JDA
Decision Date21 January 2016

Joyce Ann Wallace, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 8:14-cv-04395-DCN-JDA


January 21, 2016


This matter is before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., and Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).1 Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.


On February 23, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging disability beginning November 16, 2007. [R. 126-32.] Pursuant to the representative's brief, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to February 1, 2012. [R. 191.] However, at hearing, the representative asserted that he had made an error and had intended the amended alleged onset date to be February 1, 2011. [ R. 38.] The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") adopted

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this amended onset date of February 1, 2011. [R. 20.] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration"). [R. 71-74, 62-66.] Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and on April 17, 2013, ALJ Kelly Wilson held a video hearing on Plaintiff's claim. [R. 34-55.]

The ALJ issued a decision on May 24, 2013, finding Plaintiff not disabled. [R. 20-29.] At Step 1,2 the ALJ found Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act ("the Act") on September 30, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her amended alleged onset date of February 1, 2011, through her date last insured ("DLI") of September 30, 2011. [R. 22, Findings 1 & 2.]

At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe combination of impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine and high blood pressure. [R. 22, Finding 3.] The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had a non-severe impairment of shortness of breath and vocal problems status post cyst removal. [R. 23, Finding 4.] The ALJ found nothing in the medical record to indicate residual functional limitation or that the acute symptoms related to breathing difficulties occurred prior the Plaintiff's DLI. [Id.]

At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. [R. 23, Finding 5.] The ALJ expressly considered Listing 1.04 with respect to Plaintiff's spinal impairments. [R. 23-24.]

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Before addressing Step 4, Plaintiff's ability to perform his past relevant work, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity ("RFC")

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). In particular, the claimant was able to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could stand or walk for approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and sit for approximately 6 hours of an 8- hour workday with normal breaks.
R. 24.

At Step 4, the ALJ noted that, in light of her RFC, through the DLI, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work ("PRW") as a filing sorter and hauler, rowing machine operator, and spooler. [R. 28, Finding 7.] On this basis, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, at any time from November 16, 20073, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2011, the DLI. [R. 28, Finding 8.]

Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision but the Council declined. [R. 1-6. ] Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on November 13, 2014. [Doc. 1.]


Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and that remand is necessary because the ALJ improperly found Plaintiff's shortness of breath was a non-severe impairment, failed to account for Plaintiff's mental and physical limitations

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in the RFC, failed to perform a proper credibility analysis, and failed to make a proper Step 4 determination. [See Doc. 35.]

The Commissioner, on the other hand, contends the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff's shortness of breath and vocal problems were not severe, properly evaluated Plaintiff's RFC in light of the relevant record evidence, appropriately assessed Plaintiff's RFC, and properly found Plaintiff capable of PRW. [See Doc. 36.]


The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla—i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966) (citing Woolridge v. Celebrezze, 214 F. Supp. 686, 687 (S.D.W. Va. 1963))("Substantial evidence, it has been held, is evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is 'substantial evidence.'").

Where conflicting evidence "allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the

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Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ)," not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision). Thus, it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner so long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012); Laws, 368 F.2d at 642; Snyder v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 518, 520 (4th Cir. 1962).

The reviewing court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review, however, if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980); see also Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994). Where the Commissioner's decision "is in clear disregard of the overwhelming weight of the evidence, Congress has empowered the courts to modify or reverse the [Commissioner's] decision 'with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.'" Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1158 (4th Cir. 1971) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Remand is unnecessary where "the record does not contain substantial evidence to support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the record for more evidence would serve no purpose." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).

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The court may remand a case to the Commissioner for a rehearing under sentence four or sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Sargent v. Sullivan, 941 F.2d 1207 (4th Cir. 1991) (unpublished table decision). To remand under sentence four, the reviewing court must find either that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the Commissioner incorrectly applied the law relevant to the disability claim. See, e.g., Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1090-91 (11th Cir. 1996) (holding remand was appropriate where the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record of the claimant's residual functional capacity); Brehem v. Harris, 621 F.2d 688, 690 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding remand was appropriate where record was insufficient to affirm but was also insufficient for court to find the claimant disabled). Where the court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner's decision, a remand under sentence four is usually the proper course to allow the Commissioner to explain the basis for the decision or for additional investigation. See Radford v. Comm'r, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985); see also Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1181-82 (4th Cir. 1986) (remanding case where decision of ALJ contained "a gap in its reasoning" because ALJ did not say he was discounting testimony or why); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984) (remanding case where neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council indicated the weight given to relevant evidence). On remand under sentence four, the ALJ should review the case on a complete record, including any new material evidence. See Smith, 782 F.2d at 1182 ("The [Commissioner] and the claimant may produce further evidence on remand."). After a remand under sentence four, the court

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enters a final and immediately appealable judgment and then loses jurisdiction. Sargent, 941 F.2d 1207 (citing Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 102 (1991)).

In contrast, sentence six...

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