United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division
STEPHEN R. CLARK, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.
ORDER OVERRULING OBJECTIONS TO MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
EVANS BARKER, JUDGE
an action for judicial review of the final decision of
Defendant Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) finding Plaintiff Stephen R.
Clark not entitled to social security supplemental insurance
(“SSI”) benefits and disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”). The Commissioner sought remand
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case was referred to
Magistrate Judge Baker for initial consideration. On August
5, 2016, Magistrate Judge Baker issued a Report and
Recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be
reversed and remanded with an order to grant Mr. Clark's
request for benefits. This cause is now before the Court on
the Commissioner's Objections to the Magistrate
Judge's Report and Recommendation. For the reasons
explained in this Order, after de novo review, we
OVERRULE in part the Commissioner's objections,
MODIFY the Report and Recommendation, and
REMAND this case for further consideration.
review the Commissioner's denial of benefits to determine
whether it was supported by substantial evidence or is the
result of an error of law. Rice v. Barnhart, 384
F.3d 363, 368-69 (7th Cir. 2004); Lopez ex rel. Lopez v.
Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003).
“Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d
1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). In our review of the decision of
the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), we will not
“reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions
of credibility, or substitute [our] own judgment for that of
the Commissioner.” Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539.
However, the ALJ's decision must be based upon
consideration of “all the relevant evidence, ”
without ignoring probative factors. Herron v.
Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). In other
words, the ALJ must “build an accurate and logical
bridge” from the evidence in the record to his or her
final conclusion. Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176. We
confine the scope of our review to the rationale offered by
the ALJ. See SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80,
93-95 (1943); Tumminaro v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 629, 632
(7th Cir. 2011).
party raises specific objections to elements of a magistrate
judge's report and recommendation, the district court
reviews those elements de novo, determining for
itself whether the Commissioner's decision as to those
issues is supported by substantial evidence or was the result
of an error of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). The district court
“makes the ultimate decision to adopt, reject, or
modify” the report and recommendation, and it need not
accept any portion as binding; the court may, however, defer
to those conclusions of the report and recommendation to
which timely objections have not been raised by a party.
See Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs, Inc., 577 F.3d
752, 759-61 (7th Cir. 2009).
Mr. Clark's appeal to this Court of the ALJ's May 22,
2015 decision, the Commissioner sought remand for further
proceedings [Docket Nos. 20 (Def's Remand Motion) and 21
(Def's Memo)]. In support of the remand request, the
Commissioner argued that further clarification of the
opinions submitted by state agency reviewing physicians
Doctors Everetts and Wenzler was needed “to fully
inform Plaintiff of the basis for the ALJ's decision,
and, if necessary, to permit meaningful judicial
review.” Def's Memo at 2. Pointing out that Mr.
Clark had contended on appeal that the ALJ had misweighed
these opinions, the Commissioner sought reconsideration in
light of the record evidence as a whole. Id.
Further, the Commissioner argued that since “some
evidence in the record that [Mr. Clark] may have been obese
during the period at issue in this case [, ]” remand
was necessary to allow the ALJ to properly consider the
potential of Mr. Clark's obesity as a factor influencing
the disability evaluation process. Id.
Clark filed a response opposing remand. Pl's Resp. at
1-4. He argues that “[t]here is nothing to be gained by
such a remand to evaluate obesity and the opinions of Drs.
Everetts and Wenzler, as the medical record is complete and
shows disability due to the mental impairments even without
reevaluation of the physical impairments.” Id.
at 1. According to Mr. Clark, the specializations of the
state agency physicians (anesthesiology and cardiology)
rendered them unqualified to evaluate Mr. Clark's
physical impairments, which are all orthopedic. Id.
at 2. He also asserts that in the May 2015 decision- issued
after an earlier remand-the ALJ made the same errors
regarding the mental impairments as were made in the first
decision. Id. at 3. Finally, he asserts that the
medical records are fully developed in his case, so the
proper remedy is reversal and remand for an award of
benefits. Id. at 3-5.
Magistrate Judge recommended that the Commissioner's
motion for remand be denied and that the ALJ's decision
be reversed and remanded on grounds other than those
identified by the Commissioner. Report [Docket No. 26] at
4-10. Given the multiple errors running through the ALJ's
decision and in light of the evidence mandating an award of
benefits, the Magistrate Judge further recommended that the
Court direct Mr. Clark's applications for SSI and DDI
benefits be granted by the Commissioner. Report at 4-10
(citing Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 417 (7th
Cir. 2011; and Briscoe v. Barnhart, 19 F.3d 329, 333
(7th Cir. 2005)). The Magistrate Judge also rejected the
Commissioner's contentions in favor of remand for further
proceedings, finding that “there is no reason to
believe [the state agency physicians] will be able to shed
more light on Clark's orthopedic impairments than what is
already contained in the record[, ]” and that Mr. Clark
“did not name obesity as a condition that affected
him.” Report at 4.
Magistrate Judge further concluded that the record evidence
leads to only one conclusion-that Mr. Clark is disabled due
to his mental impairments. More specifically, he found that
ALJ had erred in failing to give appropriate weight to the
opinions of Mr. Clark's primary care physician, Mr.
Clark's mother, and the licensed clinical social worker
assigned to this case, and that, if given proper weight, the
vocational expert's testimony, the opinions of Mr.
Clark's treating physicians, his treating records,
statements from his mother, and his own testimony, all
support the conclusion that Mr. Clark was disabled. In
addition, the Magistrate Judge discounted the conflicting
medical evidence cited by the Commissioner, viewing it either
as unreliable (stating that the consulting physician's
opinions were based on exams spaced years apart) or
consistent with his conclusion (stating that plaintiff's
ability to care for his personal needs does not equate to an
ability to work in the labor market).
Commissioner objects to the Magistrate Judge's Report and
Recommendation on the grounds that the award of benefits upon
remand would be “improper and unwarranted.”
Def.'s Obj. [Docket No. 27] at 1. While acknowledging
that the ALJ committed certain errors requiring remand, the
Commissioner maintains that a direct award of benefits is
inappropriate because all factual issues have not been
resolved and the record evidence does not support the sole
conclusion that Mr. Clark's mental impairments are
disabling. Def.'s Obj. at 3-7.
Seventh Circuit has cautioned that “[a]n award of
benefits is appropriate . . . only if all factual issues
involved in the entitlement determination have been resolved
and the resulting record supports only one conclusion-that
the applicant qualifies for disability benefits.”
Allord, 631 F.3d at 417. This is so “because a
court does not have the authority to award disability
benefits on grounds other than those provided under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g).” Briscoe, 19 F.3d at 333.
Accordingly, and as acknowledged by the Magistrate Judge, the
Court's reversal and award of benefits is rarely done.
T.M.H. v. Colvin, ____F.Supp.3d___, 2016 WL 3225983
(S.D. Ind. June 16, 2016) (internal citation omitted). We
address the Commissioner's objections to the Magistrate
Judge's Report and Recommendation below.
with the Magistrate Judge's Report, we also decline to
remand Mr. Clark's case for reconsideration of the state
agency reviewing physicians' opinions. As Mr. Clark
notes, he is not claiming disability based on his physical
impairments, if any.
share the view of the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ erred by
failing to give appropriate weight to the opinions of Mr.
Clark's treating physician, Dr. Guttman, to Mr.
Clark's mother, Maggie Clark, and to Terry Payne, the
licensed clinical social worker assigned to this case. Report
at 6-8. Despite these errors, we decline to adopt the
Magistrate Judge's recommendation that an order issue
granting Mr. Clark's applications for SSI and DIB
benefits because the record is insufficiently robust to
warrant a judicial mandate supporting only the conclusion
that Mr. Clark is disabled on the basis of his mental
impairments. See Allord, 631 F.3d at 417 (nothing
that if any “lingering doubt regarding [a
claimant's] qualification for disability benefits”
remains, a remand for an award of ...