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Mitchell v. Colvin

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

July 28, 2016

Billy Mitchell, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge

         This is an action brought pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Billy Mitchell protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on November 7, 2011, alleging disability since February 21, 2010. Tr. 14. His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on November 4, 2013. Tr. 31. The ALJ issued a decision dated December 2, 2013, in which he concluded that Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. Tr. 25. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income under Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ’s decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on February 10, 2015. Tr. 1-3. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the “final decision” of the Commissioner for the purposes of judicial review. Plaintiff thereafter brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III, for a Report and Recommendation. On May 27, 2016, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation in which he recommended that the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits be affirmed. ECF No. 20. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on June 12, 2016. ECF No. 22. The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff’s objections on July 16, 2016. ECF No. 24.

         This matter now is before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation. The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. Section 205(g) of the Act provides that “[t]he 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 a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4thCir. 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). The court must uphold the Commissioner’s decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). “From 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.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). “[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’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, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). However, the Commissioner’s denial of benefits shall be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support that determination. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff was forty-six years old at the time of his hearing before the ALJ regarding his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Tr. 35. He has some high school education and has worked in the past as a heating and air conditioning technician, a utility cableman, and a utility lineman. Tr. 35 and 278. He claims disability beginning February 21, 2010, alleging coronary artery disease, diabetes, degenerative joint disease, and gout. Tr. 16. Plaintiff asserts specific objections to the Report and Recommendation. The court will review each of these objections in turn.

         A. Medication Side Effects

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge finding no error in the ALJ’s decision not to give serious weight to Plaintiff’s alleged side effects caused by his medications. ECF No. 22 at 2. Plaintiff testified that his medications would send him to the bathroom and also make him fall asleep. Tr. 38 and 40. In rendering his decision, the ALJ stated that these alleged side effects were not corroborated by Plaintiff’s medical records. Tr. 21. Plaintiff takes exception to this statement, arguing that it is “conclusory [and] unsupported.” ECF No. 22 at 3. Plaintiff points to five instances in his medical records where side effects are referenced. Id. at 2. Had the ALJ considered the side effects reflected in the record, Plaintiff argues, the ALJ may have arrived at a different result:

[I]f the ALJ had considered the combined effects of [Plaintiff’s] numerous physical conditions--including the impact of the prescriptive drugs used to treat them--the effect would have been case-determinative and clearly would have demonstrated that [Plaintiff’s] ...

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