United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division
ORDER AND OPINION
J. MICHELLE CHILDS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Christopher Samuel Parnell ("Plaintiff") filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III, issued in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) D.S.C. (ECF No. 21.)
The Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Id. at 38.) Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation. (ECF No. 23.) For the reasons set forth below, the court ACCEPTS IN PART AND REJECTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation and REVERSES the final decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB pursuant to sentence four (4) of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and REMANDS the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A thorough recitation of the relevant factual and procedural background of this matter is discussed in the Report and Recommendation. (See ECF No. 21 at 6-19.) The court concludes, upon its own careful review of the record, that the Magistrate Judge's factual and procedural summation is accurate and incorporates it by reference. The court will only reference herein facts pertinent to the analysis of Plaintiff's claims.
Plaintiff was born on October 23, 1971 and is presently forty-two (42) years old. (ECF No. 14-5 at 2.) Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past relevant work experience as a dispatcher, and as an employee in shipping and receiving. (ECF No. 14-2 at 30-31.) He filed an application for DIB on November 5, 2009, alleging disability since November 16, 2006, due to congenital scoliosis with compressed discs, degenerative disc disease status post lumbar spinal fusion and depression. (ECF No. 14-5 at 2; see also ECF No. 14-2 at 22.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration on August 25, 2010. (ECF No. 14-4 at 10.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing on September 10, 2010. (Id. at 12.) On June 7, 2011, Plaintiff had a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who found on August 25, 2011, that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act ("SSA") because he was capable of "making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." (ECF No. 14-2 at 32, 91.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 16, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. (Id. at 2.)
Subsequently, on February 18, 2013, Plaintiff commenced an action in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB. (ECF No. 1.) On August 5, 2014, the Magistrate Judge issued his recommendation that the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB be affirmed. (ECF No. 21.) Plaintiff filed timely objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation on August 22, 2014. (ECF No. 23.) The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff's objections on September 8, 2014. (ECF No. 25.)
II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS
A. The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation
The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The court reviews de novo only those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which specific objections are filed, and reviews those portions which are not objected to - including those portions to which only "general and conclusory" objections have been made - for clear error. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the magistrate judge or recommit the matter with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
B. The Court's Standard of Review
The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. 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 innumerable times 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. See Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). The court must uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). "From this it does not follow, however, 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). "[T]he 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.
C. The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation
In the thoroughly prepared Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge, after providing an exhaustive review of Plaintiff's medical history, found that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's weighing of the medical evidence. (See ECF No. 21 at 19-26.) Specifically, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ properly gave limited weight to the opinions of Dr. David C. Trott and Dr. Robert E. Flandry, which opinions pre-dated Plaintiff's back surgery on November 13, 2008, that allegedly improved his symptoms. (ECF No. 21 at 21.) The Magistrate Judge next found that the ALJ appropriately attributed little weight to the opinion of Dr. Patrick B. Mullen because he examined Plaintiff on only one occasion and did not have a treating relationship with Plaintiff. (Id. at 22.) The Magistrate Judge further found that the ALJ properly attributed some weight, but not controlling weight, to Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. David L. Shallcross because Shallcross' assessment was not supported "by his own treatment notes and was inconsistent with the record as a whole." (Id. at 24-25.) Finally, the Magistrate Judge did not find error in the ALJ's failure to give any weight to the opinion of Dr. Carol Kooistra because she ...