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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

March 25, 2015

Freddie Lee Smith, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER AND OPINION

MICHELLE CHILDS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Freddie Lee Smith ("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). (ECF No. 1.) This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin, 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. 28).

The Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). ( Id. at 31.) Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation. (ECF No. 30.) For the reasons set forth herein, 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 SSI 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. 28.) 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 December 3, 1960, and is presently 54 years old. (ECF No. 13-5 at 2.) This matter is Plaintiff's third application for disability benefits. (ECF No. 13-2 at 15.) Plaintiff previously applied in 2003, with a denial at the hearing level in 2006, and again in 2009, with a denial at the hearing level on July 30, 2010. ( Id. ) On August 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed this third application, alleging a disability onset date of July 31, 2010, due to severe impairments of major depression, mixed personality disorder, dysthymia, hypertensive heart disease, anxiety disorder, hyperlipidemia, headaches/migraines, neck pain, uncontrolled hypertension, chest pain, degenerative disc disease, mental retardation, cervical radiculopathy, cervical spondylosis, spinal canal narrowing, and spinal cord effacement and mental impairments of major depression, mixed personality disorder, dysthymia, anxiety disorder, and mental retardation. (ECF No. 13-5 at 2; ECF No. 13-6 at 42.) Plaintiff's claim was denied on September 28, 2010, and again on reconsideration on December 15, 2010. (ECF No. 13-4 at 3, 13.) On July 17, 2012, Plaintiff had a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who found on October 5, 2012, that Plaintiff is not disabled under § 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 13-2 at 13, 34.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 2, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. ( Id. at 2.)

Subsequently, on September 27, 2013, Plaintiff commenced this 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 SSI. (ECF No. 1.) On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, seeking benefits starting on December 3, 2010. (ECF No. 15 at 2.) On February 3, 2015, the Magistrate Judge issued her recommendation that the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for SSI be affirmed. (ECF No. 28.)

In the Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge found that the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Joy Dina Hudson, that Plaintiff is disabled is "not entitled to controlling weight." ( Id. at 25.) The Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ "adequately explained his consideration of Dr. Hudson's opinion in light of the record evidence and explained his weighing of the same" and "properly weighed and considered all the evidence of record and the opinions of the State agency medical consultants, " and thus the weight given to Dr. Hudson's opinion was "supported by substantial evidence." ( Id. at 26.) Further, the Magistrate Judge found that Plaintiff had not explained how the assignment of Plaintiff's case to the same ALJ as his previous decision violated any due process rights under the Administrative Procedures Act. ( Id. at 26.) Finally, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ properly applied the ruling of Albright v. Commr. of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473 (4th Cir. 1999), when making his decision. ( Id. at 27-31.)

Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation on February 20, 2015. (ECF No. 30.) The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff's objections on March 9, 2015. (ECF No. 31.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS

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).

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.

Plaintiff objects on three grounds, arguing that the Magistrate Judge (1) "erroneously determined that the ALJ properly applied Albright by assigning great weight' to his prior decision, " (2) "improperly determined that the Greenville ODAR [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] did not violate Plaintiff's due process rights and the APA by failing to assign this case to an ALJ on a rotational basis, " and (3) "improperly rejected the opinions of Dr. Joy Dina Hudson, [Plaintiff's] primary care physician, when her opinions were entitled to controlling weight under 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1527 and [Social Security Ruling] 96-2." (ECF No. 30 at 1-4.)

Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge's and ALJ's focus on the 10 day gap between the denial of his second application and the filing of this application, rather than the 27 month gap between the rendering of the current decision and the prior decision, when determining the weight to give the prior decision was a misapplication of Albright. ( Id. at 3.) In Albright, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit noted, "[a]lthough we might state with some assurance that a claimant's condition very likely remains unchanged within a discrete two-week period, we would grow ever less confident as the timeframe expands." 174 F.3d at 477. In Albright, the relevant time period to consider whether the plaintiff's condition had changed, and thus whether to afford great weight to the prior decision, spanned three years-from the time his initial claim was denied until his insured status expired. In Lively v. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv., 820 F.2d 1391 (4th Cir. 1987), which the Fourth Circuit discussed in Albright, the relevant time period was two weeks-from the time the plaintiff's initial application was denied to when the plaintiff turned 55, qualifying him as an ...


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