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Smith v. Colvin

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

March 14, 2016

Randy Smith, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge

Plaintiff Randy Smith (“Smith”), 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. 17).[1] The magistrate judge recommends affirming the Commissioner’s decision denying benefits. Smith timely filed objections (ECF No. 20) and the Commissioner filed a reply to those objections (ECF No. 22).

I. Background

Smith filed an application for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability due to L4-L5 radicular syndrome with bilateral peroneal nerve neuropathy, lumbar stenosis, and lumbar spondylosis and an onset date of September 30, 2009. His 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 December 7, 2012.

On April 19, 2013, the ALJ denied Smith’s claim finding him not disabled under the SSA. The ALJ found that Smith suffered from the following severe impairments: L4-L5 radicular syndrome with bilateral peroneal nerve neuropathy, lumbar stenosis, and lumbar spondylosis. 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 light work with certain limitations, and that he could not perform his past relevant work. The ALJ, however, determined that Smith could perform other jobs in existence in the national economy in significant numbers, and therefore, denied his 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 August 23, 2014. 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.

III. Analysis

In his objections, Smith contends that the Magistrate Judge erred by finding the weight that the ALJ assigned to treating physician Dr. Riber’s opinion was supported by substantial evidence and by finding the ALJ did not err by in assessing Smith’s credibility.

First, Smith contends that the ALJ erred by improperly giving only some weight to the opinion of Dr. Riber, his long-term treating pain specialist. The ALJ attributed only little weight to Dr. Riber’s opinion because he found that the medical evidence in the record fails to support it and were based on Smith’s subjective complaints.

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).

If a treating physician's opinion does not merit controlling weight, the ALJ is to evaluate it using the following factors: (1) whether the physician has examined the applicant; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the extent to which the opinion is supported by relevant medical evidence; (4) the extent to which the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole; (5) the relevance of the physician's medical specialization to the opinion; and (6) any other factor that tends to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); see SSR 96-2p; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 563 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the Fourth Circuit has not mandated an express discussion of each factor and another court in this district has held that “an express discussion of each factor is not required as long as the ALJ demonstrates that he applied the . . . factors and provides good reasons for his decision.” Hendrix v. Astrue, C/A No. 1:09-cv-1283, 2010 WL 3448624, at *3 (D.S.C. Sept.1, 2010). See also § 404.1527(c)(2) (requiring ALJ to give “good reasons” for weight given to treating source's opinion). A district court will not disturb an ALJ's determination as to the weight to be assigned to a medical opinion, including the opinion of a ...

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