United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
On June 16, 2011, Clarence Jones ("Plaintiff") applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and, for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from a back injury from an automobile accident, with an alleged onset date of February 20, 2011. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiff's claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of one of Plaintiff's treating physicians, failing to properly assess Plaintiff's credibility and finding that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were less than severe. (Mem. in Support of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem") (ECF No. 12) at 4-12.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, making the matter now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) be GRANTED, that Plaintiff's Motion for Remand be (ECF No. 11) GRANTED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be DENIED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be VACATED and REMANDED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 11, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability from a back injury from an automobile accident, with an alleged onset date of February 20, 2011. (R. at 280-285.) The SSA denied these claims initially on August 23, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on March 15, 2012. (R. at 159, 167, 170.) At Plaintiff's written request, the ALJ held a hearing on December 4, 2013. (R. at 79-119, 172.) On December 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiff's claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 70.) On April 23, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1.)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, the Court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the Court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (summarizing the ALJ's five step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform his past work given his RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
III. THE ALJ'S DECISION
On December 4, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert testified. (R. at 79.) On December 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 63-71.)
The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 64-65). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 20, 2011. (R. at 65.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of decompression and fusion from the T12 to L2 level. (R. at 65.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 66-67.)
In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, with no climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds, and no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs. (R. at 67.) Plaintiff could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, and frequently balance. (R. at 67.)
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. (R. at 69.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 70.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 70.)
Plaintiff, fifty-one years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a machine operator. (R. at 280, 285.) He applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability from a back injury from an automobile accident, with an alleged onset date of February 20, 2011. (R. at 280, 284.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by affording little weight to the opinion of one of Plaintiffs' treating physicians, failing to properly assess Plaintiff's credibility and finding that Plaintiff's depression and ...