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Jefferson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

May 5, 2016

Carolyn Jefferson, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Carolyn Jefferson (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rules 73.02(B)(2)(a) and 83.VII.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges, for pretrial handling. On February 4, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) in which she found that the Court cannot determine that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommended reversing the Commissioner’s decision and remanding the case for further administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 26.) The Commissioner filed Objections on February 22, 2016. (ECF No. 28.) For the reasons stated below, the Court adopts the Report in part, reverses the Commissioner’s decision and remands the case for further administrative proceedings.


The Report sets forth in detail the relevant facts and standards of law on this matter, and the Court incorporates them and summarizes below in relevant part.[1]Plaintiff was 51 years old at the time of the most recent hearing. She completed two years of college and obtained an associate’s degree in business. She has past relevant work experience as a retail sales clerk and a collections agent. On February 2, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging a disability since May 20, 2009, due to diabetes, depression, carpel tunnel syndrome, arthritis, hypertension, anxiety, and obesity, which was denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 13-14.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who issued an unfavorable decision on September 21, 2011, finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals Council subsequently issued an order vacating the ALJ’s decision and remanding the case to the ALJ. A second hearing was held before an ALJ, who issued an unfavorable decision on January 16, 2014, finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently filed an action in this Court on February 24, 2015. (ECF No. 1.)


In the sixty-three page Report, the Magistrate Judge recommends affirming the ALJ’s decision. (ECF No. 26 at 61.) The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (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). “However, the Court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the Magistrate Judge as to those portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are addressed. While the level of scrutiny entailed by the Court’s review of the Report thus depends on whether or not objections have been filed, in either case the Court is free, after review, to accept, reject, or modify any of the Magistrate Judge’s findings or recommendations.” Wallace v. Housing Auth. of the City of Columbia, 791 F.Supp. 137, 138 (D.S.C. 1992) (internal citations omitted).


The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. 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 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964); see, e.g., Daniel v. Gardner, 404 F.2d 889 (4th Cir. 1968); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966); Tyler v. Weinberger, 409 F.Supp. 776 (E.D. Va. 1976). In order for a reviewing court to determine whether the Commissioner based a decision on substantial evidence, “the decision must include the reasons for the determination . . . .” Green v. Chater, 64 F.3d 657, 1995 WL 478032, *2 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1172 (4th Cir. 1986)). The statutorily mandated standard precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court’s findings for those of the Commissioner. See, e.g., Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971); Hicks v. Gardner, 393 F.2d 299 (4th Cir. 1968). Accordingly, “the court [must] uphold the [Commissioner’s] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by ‘substantial evidence.’” Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As noted by Judge Sobeloff in Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278 (4th Cir. 1969), “[f]rom 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 action.” Id. at 279. “[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 his conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.


The Commissioner filed objections to the Report on February 22, 2016. (ECF No. 28.) She objects to the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the ALJ’s decision to accord little weight to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians, Dr. Eduardo Cifuentes (“Dr. Cifuentes”) and Dr. Betty Anita-Obong (“Dr. Anita-Obong”), is unsupported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 1.)

As an initial matter, this aspect of the ALJ’s decision was only one of the many reasons the Magistrate Judge offered for recommending the Court reverse the Commissioner’s decision and remand the matter for further administrative proceedings. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge also found that she could not determine whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s findings that: (1) Dr. Wendy Molinaroli’s opinions should be accorded little weight; (2) Plaintiff’s carpel tunnel syndrome is not a severe impairment and therefore no restrictions related to carpel tunnel syndrome should be imposed in the RFC assessment; (3) Plaintiff’s depressive disorder is not a severe impairment and therefore no restrictions related to depressive disorder should be imposed as in the RFC assessment; (4) Plaintiff’s combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App’x 1; and (5) Plaintiff’s individual symptoms did not satisfy the “paragraph B” criteria under Listing 12.06. (ECF No. 26 at 48-62.) Thus, even if the Court were to grant the Commissioner’s objections here, remand would still be proper based on the numerous other grounds relied on by the Magistrate Judge, to which the Commissioner does not object. Nevertheless, the Court employs de novo review to consider the Commissioner’s specific arguments.[2]

The Commissioner asserts that in making the findings regarding the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Cifuentes’s and Dr. Anita-Obong’s opinions, the Magistrate Judge “imposed a standard that is not required by the governing regulations, re-weighed the evidence, and substituted her judgment for the ALJ’s.” (ECF No. 28 at 1.)

Regulations require that a treating physician’s opinion be given controlling weight if that opinion “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see, e.g., Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). “By negative implication, if a physician’s opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996). In such a circumstance, “the ALJ holds the discretion to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face of persuasive contrary evidence.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178.

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, No. 1:09-cv-1283, 2010 WL 3448624, at *3 (D.S.C. Sept. 1, 2010); see § 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 treating ...

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