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Jones v. Colvin

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

March 17, 2016

Martha Jones, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

TIMOTHY M. CAIN, District Judge.

This matter is before the court with the Report and Recommendation (Report") of United States Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant (ECF No. 19), made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Rule 73.02 of the District of South Carolina.[1] Martha Jones ("Jones") seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") denial of her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. The magistrate jduge recommends affirming the Commissioner's decision. Jones filed objections to the Report. (ECF No. 22). For the reasons set forth below, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The facts are set forth in the administrative record and are summarized as follows. Jones was born in 1955, and was fifty-five years old on March 2, 2010, the alleged disability onset date.[2] (R. at 217, ECF No. 12-4; id. at 20, ECF No. 12-2.) She has an associate degree in medical billing and coding, has past relevant work experience as a collection clerk and a bank clerk/commercial credit card clerk, and served in the United States Army for more than fifteen years before receiving an honorable discharge. ( Id. at 81, 99-100, ECF No. 12-2; id. at 270, ECF No. 12-6; id. at 701, ECF No. 13-1.) Jones alleged disability due to "hearing loss, back problems, asthma, uterine fibroids, legs, wheezing and chest pain, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, polyps, HTN [hypertension], obesity and allergies." ( Id. at 182, ECF No. 12-4.)

On May 20, 2008, Jones filed an application for DIB. ( Id. at 177, ECF No. 12-4.) The application was denied initially on July 30, 2008, and again upon reconsideration on February 5, 2009. ( Id. at 177-82, ECF No. 12-4.) Thereafter, Jones filed a written request for a hearing on February 20, 2009, before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 186, ECF No. 12-4.) A hearing was held on January 22, 2010. ( Id. at 129-55, ECF No. 12-3.) The ALJ issued a decision on July 23, 2010, finding that Jones was not disabled and could perform her past relevant work as "a personnel clerk, insurance clerk, and collections clerk, as well as clerical work in a courthouse." ( Id. at 208-09, ECF No. 12-4.) Jones requested review by the Appeals Council, which subsequently issued an order on September 6, 2012, remanding the case for further proceedings to consider Jones' new evidence from one of her treating physicians, Dr. Robert E. LeBlond ("Dr. LeBlond"), a pain management specialist, that was submitted subsequent to the ALJ's decision. ( Id. at 225-27, ECF No. 12-4.)

A second hearing was held on July 2, 2013. ( Id. at 75-102, ECF No. 12-3.) After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on September 13, 2013, finding that Jones was not disabled and could perform her past relevant work as "a collections clerk and bank clerk/commercial credit card clerk." (R. at 63-67, ECF No. 12-2.) Jones' request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on September 19, 2014, making the September 13, 2013, decision of the ALJ the final action of the Commissioner. ( Id. at 1-3, ECF No. 12-2.) Jones filed the instant action on November 8, 2014. (Compl., ECF No. 1.)

II. REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

In her brief to the magistrate judge, Jones argued that the ALJ erred by: (1) relying on vocational expert testimony that was inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; (2) relying on vocational evidence that was not proffered as evidence during the hearing and was therefore unavailable to Jones' counsel; (3) improperly evaluating the Department of Veterans Affairs' rating decision; and (4) improperly evaluating and rejecting the opinion of Dr. LeBlond. (Pl. Brief, generally, ECF No. 14.)

The magistrate judge found that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ had not erred on any of these grounds. Accordingly, the magistrate judge recommended affirming the Commissioner's decision to deny Jones' benefits. (ECF No. 19.)

III. DISCUSSION OF THE LAW

A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may only review whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). Accordingly, the court "must uphold the factual findings of the [Commissioner] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence" is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Id. (internal citations omitted). Hence, absent any error of law, if the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court should uphold the Commissioner's findings even if the court disagrees. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

B. Objections

Jones filed one objection to the magistrate judge's Report. Jones objects to the magistrate judge's conclusion that the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Dr. LeBlond. (Objections 1, ECF No. 22.) "In evaluating medical opinions, an ALJ should examine (1) whether the physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician's opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist.'" Bishop v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 14-1042, 2014 WL 4347190, at *1 (4th Cir. Sept. 3, 2014) (unpublished) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 (4th Cir. 2005)). The ALJ must afford controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion if it is not inconsistent with substantial evidence in the record and is well supported by clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2) (2016); see also Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001) (finding "a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of the claimed impairment is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record"). "[T]he ALJ holds the discretion to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face of persuasive contrary evidence." Id. Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-2p requires that an ALJ give specific reasons for the weight ...


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