United States District Court, E.D. Virginia
LARRY L. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
On September 30, 2011, Larry Jones ("Plaintiff") applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from high blood pressure, gout, high cholesterol and a heart condition, with an alleged onset date of May 6, 2007. 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 in finding that Plaintiff could return to his past relevant work. (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.")(ECF No. 14) at 19.) 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, rendering the matter now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment or in the Alternative, Motion for Remand (ECF Nos. 12 and 13) be GRANTED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) be DENIED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be VACATED and REMANDED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 30, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB with an alleged onset date of May 6, 2007. (R. at 197, 352.) The SSA denied these claims initially on February 9, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on May 2, 2012. (R. at 255, 267.) At Plaintiff's written request, the ALJ held a hearing on November 7, 2013. (R. at 209-29, 291.) During the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset disability date to July 27, 2011. (R. at 212.) On November 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiff's claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because he could perform past relevant work through his date last insured. (R. at 203-04.) On February 24, 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 1-5.)
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 November 7, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 209-29.) On November 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 197-204.)
The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 198-199.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") during the period between his alleged onset date and his date last insured. (R. at 199.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of diabetes, hypertension, gout and obesity. (R. at 199.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart A, Appendix 1. (R. at 199-200.)
In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work with the ability to only occasionally finger with his left non-dominant hand. (R. at 200.) At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a flagger. (R. at 203.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 203.)
Plaintiff, sixty-four years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a flagger and a laborer on construction sites. (R. at 349-53.) He applied for DIB, alleging disability from high blood pressure, gout, high cholesterol and a heart condition with an alleged onset date of May 6, 2007. (R. at 352.) He later amended his alleged onset date to July 27, 2011. (R. at 212.) Plaintiff's appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff could return to his past relevant work, because the ALJ improperly bifurcated his composite job and found him not disabled due to his ability to perform the least demanding aspect of the job. (Pl.'s Mem. at 19.) Plaintiff also assigns error to the ALJ's RFC assessment, because the ALJ improperly afforded considerable weight to a prior ALJ's decision. (Pl.'s ...