United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS
MARY G. LEWIS, District Judge.
> This is a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). The parties are represented by excellent counsel. The matter is before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting to the Court that Defendant's final decision denying benefits be affirmed. The Report was made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South Carolina.
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 the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on February 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed his objections on March 4, 2015, and Defendant filed her response to Plaintiff's objections on March 11, 2015. The Court has carefully considered the objections, but finds them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.
Plaintiff alleges that his disability commenced on June 23, 2009, based on depression, anxiety, personality disorder, and residuals of a gunshot wound to his left leg. The Social Security Administration denied his claim, both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) after which he issued a decision on December 12, 2012, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals Council declined review. Plaintiff thereafter filed this action for judicial review.
The Agency has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a medically determinable severe impairment(s); (3) whether such impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment set forth in the Listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevents the claimant from returning to her past relevant work; and, if so, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work as it exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(I)-(v).
Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court is required to conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which a specific objection has been made. The Court need not conduct a de novo review, however, "when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the [Magistrate Judge's] proposed findings and recommendations." Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Thus, the Court will address each specific objection to the Report in turn. As provided above, however, the Court need not- and will not-address those objections that fail to point the Court to alleged specific errors that the Magistrate Judge made in the Report.
First, Plaintiff disagrees with the Magistrate Judge's finding that Plaintiff was "seek[ing] to have the Court reweigh the evidence already considered by the ALJ[.]" Objections 1 (quoting Report 32) (internal quotation marks omitted). But, that is exactly what it appears that Plaintiff is asking the Court to do. The Court has reviewed the opinions of both the Magistrate Judge and the ALJ and agrees with their assessment that there is substantial evidence in the record to support Defendant's decision to deny Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI. Therefore, the Court will overrule this objection. The Court will address this issue in greater detail below.
Second, Plaintiff complains that the Magistrate Judge was only half correct when she stated in the Report that "the ALJ explained that Dr. [Caleb] Loring was only provided medical records through January 2011; however, Plaintiff's medical records between January 2011 and April 2012, the time Plaintiff was hospitalized, showed Plaintiff was much better on increased doses of Abilify and was not as depressed." Id. at 2 (quoting Report 32) (internal quotation marks omitted). Inasmuch as Plaintiff admits that "[t]he ALF did not discredit Dr. Loring's opinions because he did not have records after January 2011[, ] id. the Court assumes that Plaintiff takes issue with the Magistrate Judge's statement that "Plaintiff's medical records between January 2011 and April 2012, the time Plaintiff was hospitalized, showed Plaintiff was much better on increased doses of Abilify and was not as depressed." Id at 2. The Court is unpersuaded that the Magistrate Judge erred.
In the Court's own review of the record in this case, Plaintiff's medical records do, in fact, show that his mental condition improved when given Abilify. For instance, on August 22, 2011, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Alvin J. Ratzlaff's office at which time they decided to adjust Plaintiff's medications to include Abilify. Administrative Record 363. Dr. Ratzlaff accessed Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score to be 55. Id. A GAF score of 51-60 is consistent with moderate symptoms and a GAF score of 61-70 is consistent with mild symptoms. When Plaintiff reported back to Dr. Ratzlaff's office on August 29, 2011, he reported that he was feeling better, although he was still depressed. Id. at 365. On that visit, Dr. Ratzlaff accessed Plaintiff's GAF score to be 60. Id. Thereafter, on November 28, 2011, according to Dr. Ratzlaff's treatment notes, Plaintiff was "[d]oing much better. Appears to benefit from increased doses of Abilify. Not nearly as depressed." Id. at 438. Therefore, inasmuch as the record bears out the fact that Plaintiff's mental condition improved when given Abilify, the Court will overrule this objection.
Third, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge "ignores that [Plaintiff] constantly had periods of improvement and worsening." Objections 3. Although not specifically addressed, the Magistrate Judge's recitation of the relevant portions of the ALJ's decision bears out the fact that the Magistrate Judge based her recommendation to this Court on the medical records as set forth in the ALJ's decision.
The ALJ and the Magistrate Judge have spelled out Plaintiff's medical records in great detail. From the Court's review of the record, except for Plaintiff's April 2012 involuntary hospitalization, his symptoms during the relevant time period generally were mild to moderate before and after his hospitalization. Moreover, the Court notes that after Plaintiff was released from the hospital, he saw Dr. Ratzlaff on June 25, 2012, at which time Dr. Ratzlaff stated that Plaintiff "says he is feeling better and he appears almost cheerful. This is the best I have ever seen him." Administrative Record 428. Dr. Ratzlaff accessed Plaintiff with a GAF score of 65. Id at 429. Thus, this objection is of no import and, to the extent it is meant to undercut the Court's confidence in the ALJ's consideration of the evidence, it fails to do so. As such, the Court will overrule this objection.
Fourth, Plaintiff maintains that the "Magistrate Judge does not address the overall pattern of [Plaintiff's] disabling impairments." Objections 3. Suffice it to say that the ALJ found that Plaintiff did "not have an impairment or combination of impairments" that would render him disabled under the Act. Administrative Record 16. And, then on pages seventeen and following, the ALJ sets forth substantial evidence to support his decision. The Court need not enumerate all of the evidence again here. Hence, the Court will overrule this objection.
Fifth, although not altogether clear, it appears that the crux of this objection is that (1) the Magistrate Judge erred in rejecting Plaintiff's argument "that the ALJ improperly relied on other physicians' conclusions that were irrelevant because they were based on medical records prior to Plaintiff's critical worsening[;] Objections 3, and (2) the Magistrate Judge erred in not finding that the ALJ improperly "relied on medical reviewers who based their opinions on a materially incomplete medical record. Id. at 4. According to ...