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Black v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

March 30, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This action for judicial review of an administrative determination under the Social Security Act was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and recommendation for disposition (“PF&R”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Now pending before the Court are Plaintiff's and Defendant's Briefs in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings. ECF Nos. 9, 12. The Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court DENY Defendant's Motion, GRANT Plaintiff's Motion, and REMAND this case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. For the following reasons, the Court REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's PF&R and REMANDS this case to the Magistrate Judge for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order. Both Defendant's and Plaintiff's motions subsequently remain pending in this Court.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed a Title XVI claim for supplemental security disability benefits with the Social Security Administration on July 30, 2013 in which she alleged disability beginning on July 14, 2012. Tr. at 11; ECF No. 8-2, at 12. Her claim was initially denied on September 26, 2013, and Plaintiff filed a request for hearing on March 17, 2014. Id. An administrative hearing was held on February 18, 2015, during which an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard evidence on Plaintiff's claims. After consideration of the case, the ALJ entered a decision on February 26, 2015 finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on May 1, 2015. Tr. at 7; ECF No. 8-2, at 8. After consideration of the administrative record, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 15, 2016, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 1; ECF No. 8-2, at 2. Plaintiff subsequently filed the present Complaint on September 14, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny her claims for benefits. ECF No. 2.

         Defendant filed a timely answer to Plaintiff's Complaint, ECF No. 7, and both parties filed Briefs in Support for Judgment on the Pleadings, ECF Nos. 9, 12. The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Dwane L. Tinsley for consideration and recommendation of disposition, and Judge Tinsley filed the present PF&R on March 2, 2018. ECF No. 13. Defendant filed timely objections to the PF&R on March 19, 2018. ECF No. 14.

         II. Standards of Review

         a. Standard of Review of PF&R

         In reviewing the PF&R, this Court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the … [Magistrate Judge's] proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In doing so, the Court can “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id. The Court, however, is not required to review the factual or legal conclusions of the Magistrate Judge to which no objections are made. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).

         b. Standard of Review of Commissioner's Decision Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), “[t]he court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” After reviewing the prescribed materials, if the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is supported by “substantial evidence, ” the Court must affirm the decision. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         III. Discussion

         In her Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings, Plaintiff argues that: (1) “the [ALJ] failed to properly consider the medical evidence of record and the opinions of the consultative examining sources regarding Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments, ” and (2) “[the ALJ failed to] incorporate [the] same into the credibility determination and the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] analysis.” ECF No. 9, at 4. The Magistrate Judge did not reach these arguments in his review of Plaintiff's case. ECF No. 13, at 7 (“This Court makes no recommendation as to [Plaintiff's] remaining arguments.”).

         In his review of the ALJ's decision regarding Plaintiff's RFC, however, the Magistrate Judge took issue with the following language from the ALJ's decision: “Greater limitations than those in the established [RFC] are not supported by the objective evidence . . ., evidence of non-compliance with treatment, and the claimant's meager earnings record, which tends to detract from the credibility of her subjective complaints.” Tr. at 17; ECF No. 8-2, at 18. The Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ's reference to Plaintiff's “meager earnings record” rendered the ALJ's decision defective because: (1) the ALJ did not state a specific amount of earnings in his decision; (2) the ALJ did not discuss the activity that Plaintiff performed to obtain the meager earnings; (3) the ALJ did not explain how Plaintiffs meager earnings record detracted from her credibility; and (4) the ALJ did not sufficiently explain how Plaintiffs earnings record supported the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. ECF No. 13, at 6-7. The Magistrate Judge further found that, even if the ALJ made a proper finding regarding Plaintiffs meager earnings record, the ALJ's failure to explain his reasoning renders the Court unable to determine whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 7.

         Defendant objects to the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations, arguing that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiffs prior work record in his determination of Plaintiff s RFC and that the substantial evidence of the record supports the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Plaintiff is not disabled. ECF No. 14. Defendant accordingly asks ...

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