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Williams v. Colvin

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

February 12, 2015

Allaina Williams, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

TIMOTHY M. CAIN, District Judge.

The plaintiff, Allaina Williams ("Williams"), 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 Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., 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 the court to affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 26).[1] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Williams has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 28), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 29). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

BACKGROUND

Williams applied for DIB and SSI in February 2011, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2010. Williams's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On June 15, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") heard testimony from Williams, her husband, and a vocational expert. On July 17, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Williams's claim.

In her decision, the ALJ found that Williams suffered from the following severe impairments: myasthenia gravis, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, and status post right eye cataract. (ECF No. 26 at 2). The ALJ found that, despite Williams's limitations, she is capable of performing past relevant work. (ECF No. 26 at 3). Williams sought review of her case by the Appeals Council, and she also submitted medical evidence that was not presented to the ALJ. The Appeals Council denied Williams's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.

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.

DISCUSSION

At issue in this case is a "Diabetes Mellitus Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire" ("Questionnaire") that Dr. Katherine Lewis, a treating physician for Williams, completed on July 1, 2013. (ECF No. 12-8 at 95-100).[2] Williams believes this Questionnaire shows she suffered from additional limitations during the relevant time period-on or before July 17, 2012-and that she was disabled. (ECF Nos. 18, 28). In her objections, Williams first asserts that the magistrate judge may have conceded that the Questionnaire presented to the Appeals' Council related back to the relevant time period. (ECF No. 28 at 2). If this is true, then she claims the case must be remanded to the Appeals Council because a magistrate judge cannot determine whether the Questionnaire would affect the decision of the ALJ. (ECF No. 28). She claims that in making such a determination, the magistrate judge undertook the role of the fact finder and provided a post hoc argument to uphold the ALJ decision because neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council examined the new evidence. (ECF No. 28 at 3-6).

The Commissioner asserts that the magistrate judge did not concede that the new evidence relates back to a period on or before the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 29 at 1). The Commissioner claims that the Questionnaire does not relate back. The Commissioner further argues that even if it is new and material evidence, a magistrate judge can consider whether it impugns the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 29 at 2-3). The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and that the Questionnaire does not impact that decision. (ECF No. 29 at 3).

As an initial point, the court finds that the magistrate judge did not concede that the Questionnaire related back to the relevant time period. The magistrate judge stated:

There is no indication by Dr. Lewis that her assessment of the plaintiff's functioning pertains to the period on or before the date of the ALJ's decision; rather it appears to be a current assessment of the plaintiff's condition in July 2013, nearly a year after the ALJ's July 17, 2012, decision.

(ECF No. 26 at 15). The rest of the magistrate judge's discussion is based on the assumption that the Questionnaire was new, material, and related back to the relevant time period. See (ECF No. 26 at 15-16) ("However, as argued by the Commissioner, even if this court was to find that Dr. Lewis' opinion does relate back to the relevant period in this case, the opinion still does not impugn the integrity of the ALJ's decision.'" (quoting Meyer v. Colvin, 754 F.3d 251, 257 (4th Cir. 2014))). Because Williams did not specifically object to the magistrate judge's finding that the evidence submitted to the Appeals' Council failed to relate back to the relevant time period, the court need not address it. See United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 621 (4th Cir. 2007) ("[A] party... waives a right to appellate review of particular issues by failing to file timely objections specifically directed to those issues."). Since Williams has the burden to prove that the ...


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