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Fears v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

March 29, 2018

Virginia Fears, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (dkts. 12, 14), the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (dkt. 16), and Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (dkt. 17). This Court referred the case to Judge Ballou for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. Judge Ballou filed his R&R, recommending the Court deny Plaintiff's motion and grant the Commissioner's motion. After reviewing the R&R and the Objections, the Court will remand the case for further proceedings applying the correct legal standards, as discussed below.

         I. Standard of Review

          “When examining an SSA disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied the correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff does not object to the ALJ's factual findings, but contends the ALJ made two legal errors. The Court reviews those issues de novo. Id.

         II. Analysis

         Because Plaintiff does not object to the R&R's recitation of the claim history in this case, the Court incorporates that portion of the R&R into this opinion. (See R&R at 2-3). By way of summary, Plaintiff applied for (and was denied) supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. Importantly, Plaintiff was unable to attend the hearing on her application because she was incarcerated. R34. Her counsel did attend that hearing. After the hearing, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled, and therefore not entitled to the benefits. The ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: a “left knee lateral meniscus tear and chondromalacia, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, asthma, obesity, borderline intellectual functioning, mood disorder, and anxiety disorder.” R13. In light of those impairments, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff would be unable to return to her previous job, but that she retained the ability to work at other jobs. R22-23. Plaintiff challenged the ALJ's conclusion on five grounds. (Dkt. 13). Judge Ballou's R&R recommended overruling all of Plaintiff's challenges. (Dkt. 16).

         Plaintiff now raises two objections to the R&R, both of which are addressed below.

         A. The ALJ failed to conduct the “more detailed assessment” required by SSR 96-8p.

         Consideration of Plaintiff's application required the ALJ to ask five questions:

[T]he ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Plaintiff alleges the ALJ made a legal error that affected his analysis at Steps Four and Five. Specifically, before answering these last two questions, the ALJ was required to determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity, or “RFC.” RFC is defined as “an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis.” SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996); see also Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635 (defining RFC as “the most the claimant can still do despite physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work.”). A mistaken determination of an individual's RFC will affect the later considerations about whether that claimant is able to perform certain types of work. See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (“ALJs clearly use the residual functional capacity finding at steps four and five.”).

         “Social Security Ruling 96-8p . . . explains how adjudicators should assess residual functional capacity.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636. This ruling specifically states that the RFC assessment of a claimant's mental capacity is different than the previous assessments made at Steps Two and Three. See SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *4 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996) (“The adjudicator must remember that the limitations identified in the ‘paragraph B' and ‘paragraph C' criteria are not an RFC assessment but are used to rate the severity of mental impairment(s) at steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation process.”). Compared with these earlier assessments, “[t]he mental RFC assessment used at steps 4 and 5 . . . process requires a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions . . . .” Id.

         The “various functions” to be considered all relate to the claimant's ability to work. They include the abilities to: “understand, carry out, and remember instructions; use judgment in making work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting.” SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *6; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(c) (“A limited ability to carry out certain mental activities, such as limitations in understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions, and in responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work pressures in a work setting, may reduce your ability to do past work and other work.”).

         Generally, remand is appropriate “where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, ” although failure to consider each of those functions may not require remand if the unmentioned functions are not relevant or contested. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (“[R]emand would prove futile in cases where the ALJ does not discuss functions that are ‘irrelevant or uncontested.'”). Remand is also appropriate when the assessment does not “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and ...

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