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Moss v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

June 21, 2017




         I. Background[1]

         The plaintiff, by counsel, seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on June 22, 2012, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2010. His prior work experience includes working as a construction worker, and he alleges that is he unable to work due to the following ailments: (1) injuries in his lower back, neck, shoulder, and left foot; (2) memory loss, and (3) depression, anxiety, and nightmares. His claim was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. The plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing, and the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a video hearing on September 17, 2014. At the hearing, the plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, as did an impartial vocational expert. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision to the plaintiff and the plaintiff appealed. The Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review, and the plaintiff timely brought his claim before this Court.

         The ALJ used a five step evaluation process pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1420 and 416.920. Using that process, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2010, the alleged onset date; (2) the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine status post fusion; degenerative disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy status post fusion; carpal tunnel syndrome of the right wrist; and left rotator cuff tear status post surgical repair with acromioplasty; (3) none of the plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) the plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work; and (5) “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Therefore, the ALJ found that the plaintiff did not have a disability as defined under the Social Security Act.

         The plaintiff and the defendant both filed motions for summary judgment. The plaintiff's motion for summary judgment argues that the defendant's decision is contrary to the law and not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ (1) erred at step three when he summarily determined that the plaintiff does not meet Listing 1.04A; (2) erred when he determined that the plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, and (3) improperly evaluated the plaintiff's credibility. The plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the defendant's decision and remand the case for an award of benefits or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings. The defendant's motion for summary judgment argues that the defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the defendant argues that substantial evidence supports (1) the ALJ's step three findings; (2) the RFC for light work; and (3) the ALJ's credibility findings.

         The magistrate judge then entered his report and recommendation. The magistrate judge recommends that this Court deny the defendant's motion for summary judgment, grant the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and accordingly remand this civil action. These recommendations are based on the magistrate judge's conclusion that the defendant erred at step three of the sequential evaluation process. The parties did not file objections. For the reasons set forth below, the report and recommendation of the magistrate judge is affirmed and adopted.

         II. Applicable Law

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C), this Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's recommendation to which objection is timely made. As to those portions of a recommendation to which no objection is made, a magistrate judge's findings and recommendation will be upheld unless they are clearly erroneous.

         III. Discussion

         As the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has held, “Under the Social Security Act, [a reviewing court] must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. A reviewing court “does not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; ‘[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ' we defer to the Commissioner's decision.” Thompson v. Astrue, 442 F. App'x 804, 805 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). Further, as the Supreme Court of the United States stated in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., “a finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” 333 U.S. 364, 395.

         At step three of the sequential evaluation process, a claimant bears the burden of proving that his medical impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment recorded in the “Listing of Impairments, ” located at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). The claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability if he meets this burden. Id. Listing 1.04 applies to claims involving disorders of the spine. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Under Listing 1.04, disorders of the spine must “result in limitations because of distortion of the bony and ligamentous architecture of the spine and [the resulting] associated impingement o[f] nerve roots . . . or spinal cord.” Id. When detailing whether a claimant has met the requirements of a listing, an ALJ must compare the claimant's actual symptoms to the requirements of the relevant listed impairments in more than a “summary way.” Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir. 1986).

         The ALJ determined at step three that the objective criteria of Listing 1.04 was not satisfied, reasoning that

there is no evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuroanatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss accompanied by sensory or reflex loss, and positive straight-leg raising test. Also, the record does not document spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication. [The plaintiff] is able to ambulate effectively.

ECF No. 7-2 at 15. The magistrate judge found that the ALJ's reasoning at step three was insufficient because the ALJ was required to compare the plaintiff's actual symptoms to the requirements of Listing 1.04 in more than a summary way. The magistrate judge determined that the ALJ has merely listed the requirements of Listing 1.04 and stated that the plaintiff had not satisfied them, which precludes meaningful judicial review. The magistrate judge noted that the ...

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