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Oman v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

August 22, 2016

Susan J. Oman, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          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”).


         Plaintiff Susan J. Oman protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on May 1, 2012, alleging disability since January 23, 2012. Tr. 12. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on November 13, 2013. Tr. 26. The ALJ issued a decision dated January 2, 2014, 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 under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ’s decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on March 26, 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 Paige J. Gossett for a Report and Recommendation. On June 20, 2016, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation in which she recommended that the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits be affirmed. ECF No. 27. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on July 19, 2016. ECF No. 31. The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff’s objections on August 5, 2016. ECF No. 34.

         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).


         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).


         Plaintiff was forty-three years old when her disability is alleged to have begun. Tr. 19. She completed high school and has some college education. Tr. 239. Plaintiff has previously worked as a certified ophthalmic assistant. She claims disability beginning January 23, 2012, alleging vasculitis; inflammatory arthritis; neuropathy; severe pain, numbness, and tingling in feet, legs, and hands; diabetes; depression; anxiety; chronic Achilles tendon tears in both ankles; chronic peritendinitis in her feet; retricalcaneal bursitis in both feet; short term memory problems; and cognitive problems. Tr. 238. Plaintiff asserts specific objections to the Report and Recommendation. The court will review each of these objections in turn.

         A. Opinions of treating physician, Dr. Niemer

         Plaintiff’s first objection is to the Magistrate Judge finding no error in the ALJ rejecting some of the opinions of Dr. Gregory Niemer. ECF No. 31 at 1. According to Plaintiff, Dr. Niemer’s opinions supported a finding of disability, especially as it related to Plaintiff’s rheumatoid arthritis and retinal vasculitis. Id. However, in his decision, the ALJ stated that he had “accorded little weight to Dr. Niemer’s opinions as they are not supported by the weight of the evidence of the record and inconsistent with his own treatment notes.” Tr. 18. Plaintiff argues that on the contrary, there is evidence that “would corroborate Dr. Niemer’s opinions.” ECF No. 31 at 2. Specifically, Plaintiff points to records from Elms Digestive, Tidewater Neurology, and South Carolina Sleep Medicine. Id.

         While the court agrees that there is evidence in the record to support parts of Dr. Niemer’s opinions (Tr. 335, 1044, 1075, 1093), however, this is not the relevant inquiry for the court to consider. Instead, the inquiry is whether the ALJ relied on substantial evidence in support of his findings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If a treating physician’s opinion is “inconsistent with other substantial evidence, ” an ALJ may accord that opinion less weight. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal quotations omitted). The ALJ found substantial evidence to be in conflict with the opinion of Dr. Niemer: First, the ALJ considered the opinions of the non-examining physicians employed by the State Disability Determination Services and found them to be in conflict with the opinions of Dr. Niemer. Tr. 18. Second, the ALJ relied on several physical examinations of Plaintiff, conducted by doctors at S.C. Sports Medicine, Low Country Rheumatology, and Lowcountry Internal Medicine (Tr. 17-18); the results of these physical examinations were also in conflict with the opinions of Dr. Niemer. In the face of conflicting evidence, it is not the role of the court to supplant its opinion for that of that of the ALJ’s. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (“Ultimately, it is the duty of the ...

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