SARAH A. PORTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
JAMES E. BOASBERG, District Judge.
On May 8, 2013, Magistrate Judge Alan Kay, to whom this Social Security dispute had been referred for full case management, issued his Report and Recommendation. He recommended that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying Plaintiff Social Security Income (SSI) benefits should be affirmed in part and remanded in part. Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, has filed Objections as permitted under Local Civil Rule 72.3(b). Finding that the Report strikes the appropriate balance, the Court will adopt it and remand the case for further proceedings.
The full factual background of the case is set out in detail in the 27-page Report. A brief recap here will suffice. On March 24, 2005, Plaintiff, then a photo technician for CVS Pharmacy, was involved in an automobile accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. See Administrative Record (AR) at 222. She suffered a fracture of the base of the fifth metatarsal of her right foot, as well as contusions of her lung, C5-C6 disc herniation, C4-C5 disc bulging (developing mild disc-degenerative disease), and possible cord edema. Id. at 261-62. As a result of these injuries, Plaintiff initially filed for SSI benefits on April 13, 2006, and ultimately applied for benefits for the closed period from March 24, 2005, to December 31, 2006, claiming that these injuries limited her ability to sit or stand and caused her constant pain. Id. at 78, 111-19.
This claim was first denied on July 31, 2006, and again on April 27, 2007. Id. at 36. Porter thereafter filed a timely request for a hearing on June 14, 2007, and one was held before an ALJ on February 7, 2008. See id. The ALJ issued his decision on March 28, 2008, denying Plaintiff's disability on the ground that she was capable of sedentary work. Id. at 36-46.
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which issued an Order Remanding Case to Administrative Judge on January 29, 2010, directing the ALJ to: (1) "Evaluate the claimant's mental impairment"; (2) "Further evaluate the claimant's subjective complaints"; (3) "Obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of the claimant's impairments"; (4) "Give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rationale with specific references to evidence... [which includes] evaluat[ing] treating source opinions... and nonexamining source opinion... and explain[ing] the weight given to such opinion evidence... [p]articularly... to the opinion of treating sources Drs. Bruce J. Ammerman and Charles F. Colao"; and (5) "If warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert...." Id. at 50-51 (emphasis in original).
On remand, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing and issued his second decision on January 26, 2011, again denying Plaintiff's disability based on a finding of capacity to perform existing work in the national economy. Id. at 19-29. Plaintiff appealed this decision, and on October 21, 2011, the Appeals Council denied her request for review, id. at 8-11, making the ALJ's January 2011 ruling the Commissioner's final decision.
Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff sought judicial review of this decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court referred the dispute to Magistrate Judge Kay on January 3, 2012, for full case management. See Referral Order, Jan. 3, 2012. The parties then cross-moved, respectively, for reversal and affirmance. Plaintiff claimed that the "ALJ abused his discretion and reached a conclusion that is arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, and contrary to law." See Pl.'s Mot. at 6. She alleged two principal errors by the ALJ: (1) his conclusion that the limitation arising from her mental impairment was "moderate, " and (2) his determination of her Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), which entailed a negative credibility finding regarding her symptoms and a grant of little weight to the opinions of her treating physicians. See id. at 6-13. Defendant responded that the ALJ's decision was "supported by substantial evidence and was reached through the proper application of the law, " and it should therefore be affirmed. See Def.'s Mot. for Affirm. at 17.
In his May 8, 2013, Report, Magistrate Judge Kay recommended that each Motion be granted in part and denied in part. See R&R at 26. Specifically, he recommended that (1) the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's mental impairment should be upheld, and (2) his assessment of Plaintiff's RFC should be reversed and the case remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Id . Defendant timely filed Objections to the Report on May 21, 2013, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.3(b), asserting that the Magistrate Judge erred in recommending remand on the issue of Plaintiff's RFC. See Def.'s Obj. at 1-2. Plaintiff, meanwhile, filed a Response on June 5, 2013, seeking to have the Report adopted in full. See Pl.'s Resp. at 1.
II. Legal Standard
Local Civil Rule 72.3(c), which mirrors 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), states that "[a] district judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge's findings and recommendations to which objection is made as provided in paragraph (b)." See, e.g., Winston & Strawn LLP v. FDIC , 841 F.Supp.2d 225, 228 (D.D.C. 2012) (district court must conduct de novo review of objections to magistrate judge's report and recommendation). The Supreme Court has determined, conversely, that the federal rules governing review of the recommendations of a magistrate judge, as provided under § 636(b)(1)(C), do not require a district judge to review those portions of a magistrate judge's report not objected to. See Thomas v. Arn , 474 U.S. 140, 150-51 (1985). In sum, the district judge "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see also LCvR 72.3(c).
Pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, district courts review decisions of the SSA Commissioner, made through the ALJ, to determine whether his findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court must uphold determinations of the ALJ "supported by substantial evidence and... not tainted by an error of law." Smith v. Bowen , 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987); Butler v. Barnhart , 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence" under the Social Security Act "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion...." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted). It is "more than a scintilla, but... something less than a preponderance of the evidence." Fla. Gas Transmission Co. v. FERC , 604 F.3d 636, 645 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
The standard of review in Social Security cases calls for "considerable deference" to decisions rendered by the ALJ and Appeals Council; nevertheless, the reviewing court "remains obligated to ensure that any decision rests upon substantial evidence." Davis v. Shalala , 862 F.Supp. 1, 4 (D.D.C. 1994). The reviewing court must also determine whether the ALJ "has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits." Lane-Rauth v. Barnhart , 437 F.Supp.2d 63, 65 (D.D.C. 2006) (quoting Butler , 353 F.3d at 999) (internal quotation marks omitted). While the ALJ is "entitled to weigh conflicting opinions and to make his own assessment of their credibility, " see Brown v. Bowden , 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986), the ALJ "cannot merely disregard evidence which does not support his conclusion." Martin v. Apfel , 118 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2000). "Because the broad purposes of the Social Security Act require a liberal construction in favor of disability, " evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the claimant. Davis , 862 F.Supp. at 4. The Court, however, "is not permitted to re-weigh the evidence and reach its own determination." Maynor v. Heckler , 597 F.Supp. 457, 460 (D.D.C. 1984).
The Magistrate Judge in this case made two recommendations regarding the ALJ's decision. First, he recommended that the determination that Plaintiff was not mentally disabled be upheld. See R&R at 13-14. Neither party challenges this finding, see Pl.'s Resp. at 1, and the Court sees no reason to upset this portion of the Report, particularly since the ALJ's decision in finding that Plaintiff's mental impairment did not "meet or equal the requirements set forth in the Listing of Impairments" was clearly based on substantial evidence. See AR at 22. Second, Magistrate Judge Kay recommended that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded on the issue of Plaintiff's Residual Functioning Capacity. This determination is what Defendant objects to. See Def.'s Obj. at 1-2. The Magistrate Judge specifically recommended reconsideration of Plaintiff's RFC during the claimed period of disability with respect to two issues: (1) "the appropriate assignment of weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating sources"; and (2) the ...