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Lester-Pierce v. Colvin

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

August 31, 2016

REBECCA LESTER-PIERCE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS

          MARY GEIGER LEWIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The parties are represented by excellent counsel. The matter is before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting that Defendant's final decision denying Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI be affirmed.

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (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).

         The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on July 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed her objections on August 8, 2016, and Defendant filed her reply to Plaintiff's objections on August 22, 2016. The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's objections, but holds them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB and SSI on May 7, 2008. According to Plaintiff, her disability commenced on April 24, 2008. She alleges that she is disabled on the bases of cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease and spondylosis, migraine headaches, a gastric dysmotility disorder, and anxiety and depression. Defendant denied her application initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which ALJ Ivor E. Avots conducted on January 8, 2010. On July 14, 2010, ALJ Avots issued a decision holding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff then filed an action for judicial review with this Court on August 10, 2012. Defendant subsequently requested, and the Court granted, a motion to remand.

         While the previous case was pending before this Court, ALJ John S. Lamb issued a decision on March 7, 2013, holding Plaintiff was disabled as of July 15, 2010. After the Court remanded the prior case, ALJ Lamb conducted a hearing on October 25, 2013, concerning Plaintiff's alleged disability from April 24, 2008 to July 14, 2010. On, January 17, 2014, ALJ Lamb issued his decision holding that Plaintiff was not disabled during that time period. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision Defendant's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Plaintiff then filed this case with the Court on February 20, 2015.

         The Agency has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a medically determinable severe impairment(s); (3) whether such impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment set forth in the Listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevents the claimant from returning to his past relevant work; and, if so, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work as it exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(I)-(v).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court is required to conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which a specific objection has been made. The Court need not conduct a de novo review, however, “when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the [Magistrate Judge's] proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).

         Thus, the Court will address each specific objection to the Report in turn. As provided above, however, the Court need not-and will not-address any of Plaintiff's arguments that fail to point the Court to alleged specific errors that the Magistrate Judge made in the Report.

         It is Plaintiff's duty to both produce evidence and prove that she is disabled under the Act. See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). And, it is the duty of the ALJ, not this Court, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Under the substantial evidence standard, however, we must view the entire record as a whole. See Steurer v. Bowen, 815 F.2d, 1249, 1250 (8th Cir. 1987).

         “Additionally, the substantial evidence standard presupposes a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration omitted). Likewise, when considering a Social Security disability claim, it is not the province of this Court to “reweigh conflicting evidence . . . or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citation omitted) (alteration omitted). Moreover, ”[i]n reviewing for substantial evidence, [this Court does] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.” Id. When “conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” (internal quotation marks and citations omitted. In other words, the Court “must sustain the ALJ's decision, even if [it] disagree[s] with it, provided the determination is supported by substantial evidence.” Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         Plaintiff raises two specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report. The first objection concerns the weight the ALJ assigned to the opinion of Dr. Stephen F. Worsham, Plaintiff's treating physician.

         When evaluating medical opinions, the ALJ should consider “(1) whether the physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician's opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 654. An ALJ, however, “may choose to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician if there is persuasive contrary evidence.” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992).

         An ALJ's determination as to the weight to be assigned to a medical opinion generally will not be disturbed absent some indication that the ALJ has dredged up “specious inconsistencies, ” Scivally v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1070, 1077 (7th Cir. 1992), or has failed to give a sufficient reason for the weight afforded a particular opinion, see 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527(d) (1998). Courts are not ...


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