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Wait v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

June 27, 2014

Anne Wallace Wait, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


TIMOTHY M. CAIN, District Judge.

The plaintiff, Anne Wallace Wait ("Wait"), brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), DSC, this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Now before this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation ("Report"), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 17.)[1] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated here by reference. Wait has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 19) and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 20). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

I. Background

Wait filed an application for SSI on August 6, 2010, alleging disability beginning September 30, 1997, due to persistent and increasing pain, sleep apnea, clinical depression, hypertension, panic attacks, and back problems, in addition to other alleged impairments. Wait's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On January 20, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") heard testimony from Wait and a vocational expert. Subsequently, the ALJ issued a decision denying Wait's claim.

In his decision, the ALJ found that Wait suffered from severe impairments, including back disorder, osteoarthritis, and obesity, but that medical evidence did not support the alleged severity of those impairments. As a result, the ALJ limited Wait to light work, with certain restrictions, and found that even though she had no past relevant work history, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Wait could perform. The Appeals Council denied Wait's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Wait again challenges that decision in this action.

II. Standard of Review

The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, "the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence has been defined... as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the court's findings for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Thus, in its review, the court may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

However, "[f]rom this it does not follow... that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative agency." Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, "the courts must not abdicate their responsibility to give careful scrutiny to the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the [Commissioner's] findings, and that this conclusion is rational." Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

III. Discussion

In her objections, Wait asserts that the magistrate judge incorrectly: (1) found that the ALJ's discussion of Wait's combined impairments was sufficient under Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47 (4th Cir. 1989); (2) found that the ALJ's failure to more thoroughly consider Wait's alleged sleep apnea was harmless error; and (3) analyzed the conflict between the vocational expert's ("VE") testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT").

1. Combination of Impairments

With regard to the ALJ's consideration of her impairments in combination, Wait contends that, under Walker, "the [ALJ's] consideration of the combined effect of all of Plaintiff's impairments can[not] be inferred by a review of the entire decision in totality or the individual, fragmentized consideration of each impairment." (Objs., ECF No. 19 at 1-2.) However, the law in this district is clear that when determining whether an ALJ properly considered the combined effect of impairments, the court must read the ALJ's decision as a whole. See Brown v. Astrue, C/A No. 0:10-cv-1584-RBH, 2012 WL 3716792, *6 (D.S.C. Aug. 28, 2012) ("Accordingly, the adequacy requirement of Walker is met if it is clear from the decision as a whole that the Commissioner considered the combined effect of a claimant's impairments.") (citing Green v. Chater, 64 F.3d 657 (4th Cir. 1995)). In addition, "an ALJ need not explicitly state that he or she has considered a claimant's impairments in combination. What matters is whether it is discernible from the ALJ's decision that he or she did so." Jones v. Astrue, C/A No. 7:10-cv-0313, 2011 WL 1877677, *12 (W.D. Va. May 17, 2011).

Here, the court agrees with the magistrate judge and finds the ALJ's overall discussion and analysis to be sufficient to demonstrate that he considered Wait's impairments in combination. See Thonsberry v. Astrue, C/A No. 4:08-4075-HMH-TER, 2010 WL 146483, *5 (D.S.C. Jan. 12, 2010) (unpublished) (holding that "while the ALJ could have been more explicit in stating that his discussion dealt with the combination of [claimant's] impairments, his overall findings adequately evaluate the combined effect of [claimant's] impairments"); Brown v. Astrue, C/A No. 1:11-3245-JMC-SVH, ...

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