United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
JOEL C. HOPPE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Frances Marie Fridley brought this action for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). On appeal, Fridley argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to consider her statements and her sister's statements regarding her symptoms and limitations, and that the ALJ abused his discretion in examining the vocational expert. After carefully reviewing the record, I find that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and the case be remanded for further proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. Standard of Review
The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner's final determination that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); see also Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it may not "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment" for that of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, the Court asks only whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011).
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). It is "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, " id., but not necessarily "a large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account the entire record, and not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984); see also Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487-89 (1951). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ's factual findings if "conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled.'" Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). However, "[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law." Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
A person is "disabled" if he or she is unable 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." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). Social Security ALJ's follow a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the applicant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past relevant work based on his or her residual functional capacity; and if not (5) whether he or she can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983). The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. At step five, the burden shifts to the agency to prove that the applicant is not disabled. See id.
II. Procedural History
Frances Fridley was born in 1967 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." 80.), and at the time of the ALJ's decision was considered a "younger individual" under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(b). She has an eighth grade education and is able to read and write. (R. 206, 208.) In the past fifteen years, she has worked as a housekeeper at a motel and a warehouse, as a packer at an orchard, and as a sewing machine operator. (R. 209.) She has not worked since July 2003, and has never had insured status under the Social Security Act. (R. 196, 209.) She alleges that she has been disabled since November 12, 1999,  due to several medical conditions including degenerative disc disease, adhesive capsulitis, and depression. (R. 19, 207.) After the agency rejected Fridley's claim initially and on reconsideration (R. 111-122), an ALJ hearing was held at Fridley's request. (R. 28-64.)
The ALJ issued his decision on October 25, 2011. (R. 17-23.) The ALJ found that Fridley had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease involving the cervical spine, possible adhesive capsulitis involving the left shoulder, and depressive disorder. (R. 19.) He found that these impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings, either alone or in combination. (R. 19.)
Next, the ALJ determined that Fridley had the RFC to perform a wide range of light work, with some exertional and non-exertional limitations, including only occasional use of her dominant left arm for reaching, handling, fingering, or grasping. (R. 19-20.) The ALJ based his RFC determination principally on the assessments of a consulting physician and psychologist. (R. 20-22.) He discussed Fridley's own statements regarding her limitations, but made no finding as to her credibility. (R. 20-22.)
The ALJ determined at step 4 that Fridley could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 22.) However, at step 5, the ALJ found Fridley capable of work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, for example, as a laundry folder, cafeteria attendant, and counter clerk. (R. 22-23.) The ALJ based this finding on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"). (R. 22-23, 52-63.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Fridley not disabled under the Act. (R. 23.) The Appeals Council denied review on April 12, 2013, and this appeal followed. (R. 1-5.)
A. The Credibility Determination
Fridley first argues that the ALJ failed to consider her statements regarding her symptoms and limitations, as well as the corroborating statements of her sister. (Pl. Br. 5-7.) She notes that the ALJ did not cite to any of the "E" exhibits in his decision, and identifies several of her statements regarding her own limitations that the ALJ did not discuss. (Pl. Br. 6-7.) Fridley points out that the ALJ failed to make any explicit credibility findings as to either her or her sister. (Pl. Br. 7.) Fridley argues that the ALJ's failure to adequately discuss her testimony is particularly serious given the paucity of medical records in this case. (Pl. Br. 5.)
In response, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ "was not required to pay special weight to [Fridley's] statements" but merely to assist her in developing the record by ordering a consultative examination. (Def. Br. 11.) The Commissioner notes that the ALJ did discuss Fridley's subjective complaints, the limited medical records in the case, and Fridley's reports of daily activities and, based on this evidence, "found [Fridley] not entirely credible." (Def. Br. 11-12.) The Commissioner also argues that the ALJ's questioning during the hearing demonstrated his familiarity with the record, including the "E" exhibits. (Def. Br. 11-13.) Finally, the Commissioner argues that the ...