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Honeycutt v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 16, 2015

BERNARD E. HONEYCUTT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DANIEL D. CRABTREE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Bernard Honeycutt sought judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. On September 30, 2014, this Court reversed and remanded the decision of the Commissioner because it concluded that the Appeals Council erroneously excluded new and material evidence. The Court entered final judgment pursuant to "the sixth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)" and remanded the case to the agency to reconsider plaintiff's benefits application inclusive of the new evidence (Doc. 29). The Commissioner now has filed a motion seeking relief from that final judgment pursuant Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) (Doc. 32). She argues that the entry of final judgment is contrary to a sentence-six remand and that the Court should rescind its entry of final judgment. Plaintiff has filed a response, arguing that the Court should not rescind the judgment but instead amend it to reflect a sentence-four remand (Doc. 35). For the reasons explained below, the Court denies the Commissioner's motion and amends its September 30, 2014 Memorandum and Order to reflect entry of judgment pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

A. The Features of Sentence-Four and Sentence-Six Remands

"In cases reviewing final agency decisions on Social Security benefits, the exclusive methods by which district courts may remand to the Secretary are set forth in sentence four and sentence six of [42 U.S.C.] § 405(g)." Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 296 (1993). Those parts of the statute provide:

[Sentence Four:] The 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....
[Sentence Six:] The court may, on motion of the Commissioner of Social Security made for good cause shown before the Commissioner files the Commissioner's answer, remand the case to the Commissioner of Social Security for further action by the Commissioner of Social Security, and it may at any time order additional evidence to be taken before the Commissioner of Social Security, but only upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding; and the Commissioner of Social Security shall, after the case is remanded, and after hearing such additional evidence if so ordered, modify or affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact or the Commissioner's decision, or both, and shall file with the court any such additional and modified findings of fact and decision, and, in any case in which the Commissioner has not made a decision fully favorable to the individual, a transcript of the additional record and testimony upon which the Commissioner's action in modifying or affirming was based. Such additional or modified findings of fact and decision shall be reviewable only to the extent provided for review of the original findings of fact and decision.

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A sentence-four remand is proper when the reviewing court makes a substantive ruling on the correctness of the Commissioner's decision. See Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98 (1991). Entry of final judgment must accompany an order remanding a case under sentence four. Shalala, 509 U.S. at 297 (citing Sullivan v. Finkelstein, 496 U.S. 617, 629 (1990)). "Immediate entry of judgment... is in fact the principal feature that distinguishes a sentence-four remand from a sentence-six remand." Id. (citing Melkonyan, 501 U.S. 89 at 101-02). By contrast, a sentence-six remand "does not affirm, modify, or reverse the [Comissioner's] decision; it does not rule in any way as to the correctness of the administrative determination." Id. Under sentence six, "[t]he district court... does not rule in any way as to the correctness of the administrative determination." Melkonyan, 501 U.S. 89 at 98. "Rather, the court remands because new evidence has come to light that was not available to the claimant at the time of the administrative proceeding and that evidence might have changed the outcome of the prior proceeding."[1] Id. Such remands are not final judgments. Huff v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1352 (10th Cir. 2000). Instead, the district court retains jurisdiction until the conclusion of further administrative proceedings, after which the parties may return to it and obtain a final judgment. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Melkonyan, 501 U.S. at 102).

To resolve the Commissioner's motion, the Court must first revisit the grounds upon which it ordered remand in its September 30, 2014 Memorandum and Order (the "Order"). Next, it must determine whether the type of remand it ordered properly falls under sentence four or sentence six of § 405(g). Finally, it must decide what kind of relief, if any, it should grant the parties.

B. The Reasons the Court Remanded the Case

In February 2013, plaintiff presented additional medical evidence to the Appeals Council, which he attached to his brief as Exhibit A. Doc. 18-1. The new evidence included records from Dr. Brent Adams documenting a successful cervical fusion operation that plaintiff received in September 2012. Id. The Appeals Council declined to consider the new evidence because it concluded that it was unrelated to the time period for which plaintiff sought benefits. See Doc. 10 (R. 2) ("We also looked at the medical records [claimant] submitted.... This new information is about a later time. Therefore, it does not affect the decision about whether [claimant was] disabled beginning on or before [the alleged disability period]."). In its Order, this Court found that the records comprising Exhibit A were new, material, and chronologically relevant to the plaintiff's disability period. It thus concluded that the Appeals Council erred by excluding them.

C. The Procedure for Submitting New Evidence to the Appeals Council

The Commissioner's regulations provide that, when reviewing an ALJ's decision, "the Appeals Council shall consider the additional evidence only where it relates to the period on or before the date of the administrative law judge hearing decision.... It will then review the case if it finds that the administrative law judge's action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record." 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470(b), § 416.1476(b). These regulations mandate a two-step process. First, the Appeals Council must evaluate all of the new evidence a claimant submits and make a threshold determination about whether the evidence is new, material, and relates to the relevant disability period. See id. ("If you submit evidence which does not relate to the period on or before the date of the administrative law judge hearing decision, the Appeals Council will return the additional evidence to you with an explanation as to why it did not accept the additional evidence and will advise you of your right to file a new application."). If the Appeals Council finds that the new evidence qualifies, it must then review the case to determine whether the ALJ's "action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record, " inclusive of the new evidence. Id.

D. Whether the Court Should Have Remanded Under Sentence Four or Six

The Appeals Council concluded that the surgical records comprising plaintiff's Exhibit A did not relate to plaintiff's alleged disability period. It thus excluded the evidence from the record. The Court held that it was error to exclude this new evidence and remanded the case to the Commissioner. The Commissioner argues that the Court's Order remanded the case "solely for consideration of additional evidence attached to Plaintiff's brief." Doc. 32 at 2. This, she argues, renders "a sentence-six remand appropriate" because the ...


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