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Wooten v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 19, 2016

Renee Wooten, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Richard Mark Gergel, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). In accord with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 DSC, this matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") on June 8, 2016, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Dkt. No. 13). Plaintiff timely filed objections to the R & R, arguing that the R & R "undervalues and misrepresents" the opinions of Plaintiff s treating physician, Dr. Steude, and the Magistrate Judge refused to consider records submitted for the first time at the time of the appeal to the District Court. (Dkt. No. 15). The Commissioner has filed a reply urging the Court to adopt the R & R and to affirm the administrative decision. (Dkt. No. 17).

         After a careful review of the full record in this matter, the decision of the ALJ, the R & R and controlling legal standards, the Court finds the Administrative Law Judge appropriately weighed the opinions of Plaintiff s treating physician, an examining physician and two non- examining and non-treating physicians in accord with the standards of the Treating Physician Rule, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, and there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision of the Commissioner that at the relevant time period at issue in this matter the Plaintiff retained the Residual Functional Capacity to perform light work. The Court further finds that the R & R correctly concluded that the newly submitted records were appropriately not included in the record under the standards set forth in the Sixth Sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Legal Standard

         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 and Recommendation to which specific objection is made. The Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. 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. The Act provides that 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 preponderance." Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court's findings of fact for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157 (4th Cir. 1971).

         Although the federal court's review role is a limited one, "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." Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d278, 279 (4th Cir, 1969). Further, the Commissioner's findings of fact are not binding if they were based upon the application of an improper legal standard. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 519 (4th Cir. 1987).

         Under the regulations of the Social Security Administration, the Commissioner is obligated to consider all medical evidence and the opinions of medical sources, including treating physicians. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). This includes the duty to "evaluate every medical opinion we receive." Id. § 404.1527(c). Special consideration is to be given to the opinions of treating physicians of the claimant, based on the view that "these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations." Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). Further, the Commissioner is obligated to "give more weight to a source who has examined the claimant than to the opinion of a source who has not." Id. § 404.1527(c)(1).

         Under some circumstances, the opinions of the treating physicians are to be accorded controlling weight. Even where the opinions of the treating physicians of the claimant are not accorded controlling weight, the Commissioner is obligated to weigh all medical opinions in light of a broad range of factors, including the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, length of treatment, nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinions in the medical record, consistency, and whether the treating physician was a specialist. Id., §§ 404.1527(c)(l)-(5). The Commissioner is obligated to weigh the findings and opinions of treating physicians and to give "good reasons" in the written decision for the weight given to a treating source's opinions. SSR 96-2P, 61 Fed. Reg. 34490, 34492 (July 2, 1996). Further, since the Commissioner recognizes that the non-examining expert has "no treating or examining relationship" with the claimant, she pledges to consider their supporting explanations for their opinions and "the degree to which these opinions consider all of the pertinent evidence in your claim, including opinions of treating and examining sources." § 404.1527(c)(3).

         A claimant may offer new and material evidence to the District Court in support of a motion for remand if certain prerequisites are met. These include: (1) the new evidence is relevant to the time period at issue in the claim; (2) the new evidence is material, meaning that the outcome might reasonably have been different with this additional evidence; (3) there is good cause for failure to submit the evidence when the claim was before the Commissioner; and (4) there must be a general showing of the nature of the new evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Borders v. Heckler, 777 F.2d 954, 955 (4th Cir. 1985).

         Factual Background

         Plaintiff, who had been working as a hospice nurse, walked off the job on or about March 12, 2012, reportedly because of certain physical and psychological factors, and asserts that event marked the onset of her disability period. Transcript of Record ("Tr.") 17. She applied for DIB, which carried a last insured date of March 31, 2013. Id. Thus, the issue presented in this disability claim is whether Plaintiff possessed the residual functional capacity for qualifying work under the Social Security Act during the period beginning on March 12, 2012 and extending to March 31, 2013.

         Plaintiff has been under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Steude, since August 2015, and treated Plaintiff during the relevant time period. He evaluated Plaintiff in his office on March 16, 2012, and documented the episode of her walking off the job. At that time he anticipated she would return to work in a matter of weeks, but recognized that her diagnosed depression might be greater than immediately appreciated. Tr. 295. Dr. Steude saw Plaintiff again eleven days later, on March 27, 2012, and noted problems she was experiencing with a boyfriend. Id. Dr. Steude documented in a May 21, 2012 office note that Plaintiffs anxiety was "ok" and "back to normal" and her mental status exam was within normal limits. Tr. 301.

         Dr. Steude documented in office notes in August 2012, October 2012 and January 2013 difficulties that Plaintiff was having in a relationship with a boyfriend. The record indicated that the patient was experiencing what Dr. Steude described as "paranoia, " with references to a "plot" involving the boyfriend and a former girlfriend. Despite these difficulties, Dr. Steude again noted on January ...

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