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Whitfield v. Colvin

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

February 26, 2015

WENDY D. WHITFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID C. NORTON, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald's Report and Recommendation ("R&R") that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn Colvin's decision denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Plaintiff Wendy D. Whitfield ("Whitfield") filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for further administrative proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.

A. Procedural History

Whitfield filed an application for DIB on May 18, 2010, alleging disability beginning on March 12, 2010. The Social Security Agency denied Whitfield's claim initially and on reconsideration. Whitfield requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and ALJ Marcus Christ held a hearing on May 9, 2012. The ALJ issued a decision on May 21, 2012, finding Whitfield not disabled under the Social Security Act. Whitfield requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, rendering the ALJ's decision the final action of the Commissioner.

On September 5, 2013, Whitfield filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on January 12, 2015, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Whitfield filed objections to the R&R on February 6, 2015 and the Commissioner filed a brief response on February 20, 2015. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

B. Medical History

Because Whitfield's medical history is not relevant to the disposition of this case, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Whitfield was born on August 9, 1960 and was 49 years old on the alleged onset date. Whitfield has limited education and past relevant work experience as a bingo runner and gas station cashier.

C. ALJ's Decision

The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Whitfield was disabled from March 12, 2010 through May 21, 2012. The ALJ first determined that Whitfield had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period. Tr. 21. At the second step, the ALJ found that Whitfield suffered from the following severe impairments: disorders of the back and obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Whitfield's impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in the Agency's Listing of Impairments ("the Listings"). Id. at 22; see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Whitfield had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a), except that she: can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can frequently push and pull; can kneel and balance frequently; can only occasionally stoop, crouch, and crawl. Id. Additionally, Whitfield must be allowed to use a hand-held assistive device for prolonged ambulation and to sit or stand at her workstation to relieve her pain symptoms as needed. Id. Whitfield must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold, or humidity and even moderate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. Id. The ALJ found, at step four, that Whitfield was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. Tr. 25. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that considering Whitfield's age, education, work experience and RFC, she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore concluded that she was not disabled during the period at issue. Tr. 25-26.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. ยง 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits "is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Id. (internal citations omitted). "[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Id. Where conflicting evidence "allows reasonable minds to differ as to ...


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