United States District Court, District of South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge
Plaintiff Inga Lashon Smith (“Smith”), proceeding pro se, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation (“Report”) of the United States Magistrate Judge, made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., concerning the disposition of social security cases in this district. (ECF No. 19). The magistrate judge recommends affirming the Commissioner’s decision denying benefits. Smith timely filed objections (ECF No. 22) and the Commissioner filed a reply to those objections (ECF No. 27).
Smith filed an application for DIB and SSI in May 2010, alleging a disability due to lumbar and cervical impairments and alleging an onset date of August 5, 2008. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Smith requested review by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and a hearing was held before an ALJ on April 9, 2012.
On May 18, 2012, the ALJ denied Smith’s claim finding her not disabled under the SSA. The ALJ found that Smith suffered from the following severe impairments: mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine with radicular symptoms, fibromyalgia, and obesity. However, the ALJ found that Smith’s impairments did not meet or were medically equal to the criteria for any of the listed impairments. Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to assess Smith’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ found that Smith could perform a full range of work at sedentary levels but with certain nonexertional limitations, and that she could not perform her past relevant work as a bakery food sales clerk, dietary aide, or final inspector. The ALJ, however, determined that Smith could perform other jobs in existence in the national economy in significant numbers, and therefore, denied her disability claim.
Smith sought review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision. Smith then filed this action for judicial review on November 19, 2013. In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated here by reference.
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.
In his objections, Smith contends that the Magistrate Judge erred by finding the weight the ALJ assigned to treating physician Dr. Robbie Buechler’s opinion was support by substantial evidence and by finding the ALJ did not err by failing to perform the psychological review technique form analysis.
First, Smith contends that the ALJ erred by improperly giving only some weight to the opinion of Dr. Buechler, her treating neurologist. The ALJ attributed only some weight to Dr. Buechler’s opinion because he found that “some of his conclusions are inconsistent with [the] treatment record and the other substantial evidence of record.” (Tr. 24). Specifically, the ALJ questioned Dr. Buechler’s opinion that Smith would have to rest for more than an hour during the week and would likely miss more than three days of work in a month. (Tr. 24-25, 269-70). The ALJ noted That diagnostic tests revealed only mild degenerative changes in the spine and that other medical providers did not find any such impairment. (Tr. 25).
A treating physician's opinion as to a patient's condition and functional limitations should ordinarily be accorded great weight. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 589-590 (4th Cir. 1996). However, the opinion of a treating physician is not entitled to great weight when it is contradicted by the physician's own treatment notes, or by other evidence. See Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1023 (8th Cir. 2002) (“When a treating physician's opinions are inconsistent or contrary to the medical evidence as a whole, they are entitled to less weight” (citations omitted)); Burch v. Apfel, 9 Fed.Appx. 255 (4th Cir. 2001) (ALJ did not err in giving physician's opinion little weight where the physician's opinion was not consistent with her own progress notes).
The magistrate judge summarized Dr. Beuchler’s January 2011 opinion (Report at 19-21) and the ALJ’s consideration of Dr. Beuchler’s opinion (Report 21-22; Tr. 23-24) and determined that Smith failed to point to any evidence upon which the court could conclude that the ...