Baugh v. Colvin (N.D. Ga. Feb. 17, 2016) (Magistrate Judge Justin S. Anand)

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Included: Plaintiff’s Brief, Plaintiff’s Reply Brief, Report and Recommendation, and Decision

Issues Briefed:

  1. 1)  The ALJ reversibly erred by failing to properly assess Mr. Baugh’s subjective complaints and credibility.

  2. 2)  The ALJ’s findings regarding Mr. Baugh’s mental functional limitations are not supported by substantial evidence.

  3. 3)  The ALJ erred by not complying with binding authority concerning the role of Mr. Baugh’s substance abuse.

  4. 4)  The ALJ’s abrupt dismissal of the lay witness evidence for inadequate reasons cannot stand.

  5. 5)  The ALJ’s hypothetical questioning of the vocational expert cannot be deemed complete, and thus the testimony elicited did not satisfy the Commissioner’s burden of proof at step five.

In reversing and remanding for further proceedings, the court agreed that the ALJ improperly weighed his “history of inconsistent compliance with prescribed medication” by placing undue reliance on this factor and failing to consider “whether there may have been good cause to explain Plaintiff’s occasional non-compliance.” Slip op. at 13-19. As set forth in SSR 96-7p, “before relying on a claimant’s failure to follow prescribed treatment, the ALJ has an affirmative duty to fully investigate alternative explanations, at least where possible explanations are suggested in the record.” Id. at 15 (citing Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567, 1573 (11th Cir. 1990)). As the court explained:

As the ALJ here even noted, the medical record includes references to the Plaintiff’s inability to maintain prescriptions due to lack of money. Indeed, the record further includes references to the fact that Plaintiff had not worked during the period of non-compliance, lived at various times in a shelter or at a relative’s house, and generally appeared to lack financial resources. . . . . [A] claimant’s inability to afford treatment and lack of access to low cost or free services can constitute good cause for failing to follow a prescribed regimen. The ALJ, however, did not discuss or assess this possible explanation or conduct any investigation of this issue.

Id. at 15-16 (record citations omitted).

The court observed that the “ALJ repeatedly and prominently cited Plaintiff’s non-compliance, including as the very first reason for discounting Plaintiff’s credibility” and, as such, it was “simply not clear from the ALJ’s decision whether the ALJ might have found Plaintiff to be disabled absent consideration of Plaintiff’s non-compliance.” Id. at 17. Given the fact that the ALJ “never developed the record on this point, never investigated Plaintiff’s failure to adhere to his treatment, and never made any findings sufficient to support the ALJ’s heavy reliance on Plaintiff’s non-compliance,” remand was required. Id. at 18-19.

Next, the court addressed whether the ALJ improperly determined his mental functional limitations by not properly considering the factors related to his social functioning limitations and difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. at 22-26. The court expressed concern with the ALJ’s mental RFC, stating:

Without more detail, it is hardly clear that merely “spending time watching television,” sitting in a park watching birds and looking at comic books, or listening to music, is meaningful as to a claimant’s concentration, persistence, pace, and ability to handle stress in a work setting. With more development and information, these facts might be more probative. But the record as it stands is quite bare on these issues and sheds little light on Plaintiff’s claimed inability to handle work-related stress or follow instructions. Remand presents the ALJ with an opportunity to clarify, elaborate on, or reconsider this analysis.

Id. at 24-25.

Moreover, “despite evidence that Plaintiff has difficulty with stress and following instructions, and despite specific suggestions from the State psychological consultant that all contact with Plaintiff be ‘casual,’ and that any supervision be ‘direct’ and ‘nonconfrontational,’ the ALJ included no explicit limitation as to Plaintiff’s interactions with supervisors and co-workers or any explanation why not.” Id. at 25. Thus, remand was warranted in order for the ALJ to “expressly address whether Plaintiff’s social functioning limitations require further restrictions as to his interaction with supervisors and co-workers and, if not, to explain that finding.” Id. at 25-26.

Regarding lay evidence, the court found that the “ALJ appears to have unduly relied on these witnesses’ lack of medical experience.” Id. at 27. Yet, the “witnesses were not purporting to render medical opinions, and Plaintiff was not offering them as medical sources.” Id. As the court noted:

The regulations require the ALJ to consider all relevant testimony, including from the claimant himself and lay witnesses. Obviously, this testimony was not to be afforded the controlling or substantial weight typically afforded to medical source information. But it is not consistent with the regulations to automatically ascribe little weight to the testimony of witnesses simply because they are not doctors.

Similarly problematic is the ALJ’s entirely conclusory statement that the testimony of the lay witnesses is inconsistent with the record as a whole. Boilerplate and unexplained generalizations such as this are of no assistance to a reviewing court and fail to meaningfully explain why a witness’ testimony is rejected as incredible. Remand thus offers another opportunity for the ALJ to resolve this inadequacy.

Id.