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Helms v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

May 16, 2016

Dana L. Helms, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge

Plaintiff Dana L. Helms (“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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 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 January 5, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report” or “R&R”) in which she determined that Plaintiff did not show that the Commissioner’s decision was unsupported by substantial evidence or reached through application of an incorrect legal standard. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the Commissioner’s decision. (ECF No. 15.) Plaintiff filed Objections on January 24, 2016. (ECF No. 18.) For the reasons stated below, the Court adopts the Report and affirms the Commissioner’s decision.


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 44 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. She completed the ninth grade and has past relevant work experience as a convenience store manager. On March 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits alleging a disability since November 10, 2011, due to obesity, peripheral polyneuropathy, lumbar and thoracic degenerative disc disease, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, carpel tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. (Tr. at 24, 26.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who issued an unfavorable decision on November 21, 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 May 4, 2015.


The Magistrate Judge recommends affirming the ALJ’s decision. (ECF No. 21 at 25.) 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.


Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on January 24, 2016. (ECF No. 18.) She objects that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ: (1) properly accounted for Plaintiff’s moderate limitation in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace and (2) properly gave little weight to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Coy L. Eaton (“Dr. Eaton”).

Very respectfully, these objections are the precise matters raised to the Magistrate Judge and appropriately rejected in her thorough thirty-four page Report. (See ECF No. 18 at 14-33); see also Hendrix v. Colvin, 2013 WL 2407126, at *4 (D.S.C. June 3, 2013); Jackson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 1883026 (W.D. N.C. May 17, 2011); Aldrich v. Bock, 327 F.Supp.2d 743, 747 (E.D. Mich. 2004). Nevertheless, the Court employs de novo review to consider Plaintiff’s specific objections in turn.[2]

A. Consideration of Limitations in Concentration, Persistence, or Pace

Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by failing to explain how Plaintiff’s moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace was accounted for in her RFC. (ECF No. 18 at 1.) Specifically, she asserts that the ALJ failed to include these restrictions in the hypothetical posed to the Vocational Expert (“VE”) and that the ALJ’s restriction to simple, repetitive tasks and instructions in jobs with occasional public contact did not adequately reflect her limitation. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff asserts that the recent Fourth Circuit decision, Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), requires remand under these facts.

In Mascio, the court noted that the ALJ found at step 3 that Mascio had “moderate difficulties in maintaining her concentration, persistence, or pace as a side effect of her pain medication.” 780 F.3d at 638. In the RFC finding, the ALJ limited Mascio to unskilled work. Id. at 635. However, in the hypothetical, the ALJ said nothing about Mascio’s mental limitations. Id. at 637. The vocational expert responded with unskilled, light work jobs. Id. Accordingly, as the court noted, “The ALJ’s hypothetical, together with the vocational expert's unsolicited addition of ‘unskilled work, ’ matched the ALJ's finding regarding Mascio’s [RFC]. Thus, ...

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