REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PAIGE J. GOSSETT, Magistrate Judge.
This social security matter is before the court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.). The plaintiff, Heather A. Orff, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the defendant, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and the case remanded.
SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY GENERALLY
Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) and (d)(5), as well as pursuant to the regulations formulated by the Commissioner, the plaintiff has the burden of proving disability, which is defined as an "inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a);
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that she is unable to return to her past relevant work because of her impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A);
In January 2012, Orff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning December 15, 2011. Orff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on January 10, 2013, at which Orff appeared and testified, and was represented by Eleanor Swierk, a non-attorney representative. After hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision on January 25, 2013 finding that Orff was not disabled. (Tr. 213-22.) The Appeals Council granted Orff's request for review and issued an order on March 20, 2014 vacating the hearing decision and remanding the case for further proceedings. (Tr. 230-31.) Specifically, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ's decision did not include adequate consideration of the severity and effects of Orff's obesity, both singularly and in combination with other impairments, and that the ALJ's decision did not reflect consideration of the lay statements from Orff's mother. (
A second hearing was held on August 21, 2014, at which Orff appeared and testified and continued to be represented by Eleanor Swierk, a non-attorney representative. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert. The ALJ issued a decision on October 31, 2014 finding that Orff was not disabled. (Tr. 77-87.)
Orff was born in 1977 and was thirty-four years old on her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 85.) She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a branch service representative at a bank, a copy consultant at a copy store, and a float flex banker at a bank. (Tr. 474.) Orff alleged disability due to "bipolar depression," anxiety, panic attacks, chronic migraines, borderline personality, asthma, spine issues, degenerative disc disease, high blood pressure, diverticulosis, and reflux. (Tr. 473.)
In applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Orff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2011, her alleged onset date. The ALJ also determined that Orff's asthma; degenerative disc disease; obesity; depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; borderline personality disorder; migraine headaches; and opioid dependence in recent remission were severe impairments. However, the ALJ found that Orff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). The ALJ further found that Orff retained the residual functional capacity to
(Tr. 81.) The ALJ found that Orff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that, considering Orff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Orff could perform. Therefore, the ALJ found that Orff was not disabled from the alleged onset date of December 15, 2011 through the date of the decision.
Orff submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on February 11, 2016, making the decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5.) This action followed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may review the Commissioner's denial of benefits. However, this review is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's findings "are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard."
Orff raises the following issues for this judicial review:
(Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 18.)
The crux of the majority of Orff's arguments is that the ALJ failed to properly consider and address the evidence related to Orff's migraines. Orff argues that in failing to properly evaluate this evidence, the ALJ failed to properly explain his residual functional capacity findings as required by SSR 96-8p and failed to properly weigh Orff's subjective complaints. In arguing the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion evidence from Dr. Kellie Bishop, Orff's also relies in part on the alleged failure of the ALJ to properly evaluation of Orff's migraines. Upon review of the parties' briefs, the record in this matter, and the applicable law, the court finds that this matter should be remanded for further consideration of the evidence relating to Orff's migraines.
A claimant's residual functional capacity is "the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations" and is determined by assessing all of the relevant evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In assessing residual functional capacity, an ALJ should scrutinize "all of the relevant medical and other evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). Social Security Ruling 96-8p further requires an ALJ to reference the evidence supporting his conclusions with respect to a claimant's residual functional capacity. Further, "remand may be appropriate . . . where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's analysis frustrate meaningful review."
The ALJ's evaluation of Orff's migraines included finding them to be a severe impairment but not severe enough to meet the requirements of a Listing. Further, in evaluating Orff's hearing testimony and in formulating Orff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ found as follows:
(Tr. 82.) The ALJ further acknowledged that
(Tr. 83-84.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that although Orff was "somewhat limited by her headaches, the evidence does not support a finding that she is totally disabled." (Tr. 85.)
In support of her allegations of error, Orff points to medical records indicating that prior to her seeking treatment from an emergency room or her treating physician, Orff's headaches would last for several days without relief from prescribed medications. (
In response to Orff's arguments, the Commissioner reiterates the ALJ's findings, directs the court to some of Orff's daily activities, and argues that the ALJ accounted for limitations stemming from Orff's migraines but that he determined these findings were inconsistent with disabling limitations. However, based on all the contradictory evidence pointed out by Orff, which was not acknowledged or discussed by the ALJ, the court is unable to determine whether the ALJ's evaluation of Orff's migraines is supported by substantial evidence, and the court is unable to conduct a meaningful judicial review of the ALJ's decision. Therefore, upon review of the parties' arguments, the record in the matter, and in accordance with the above discussed law, the court is constrained to recommend that this matter be remanded for further consideration and discussion of Orff's migraines.
Based on the foregoing, the court recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration as discussed above.