United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division
ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND
AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S FINAL DECISION DENYING
GEIGER LEWIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff seeks judicial
review of the final decision of Defendant denying her claims
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 to the Court that
Defendant's final decision denying Plaintiff's claims
for DIB and SSI be affirmed. The Report was made in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule
73.02 for the District of South Carolina.
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. §
Magistrate Judge filed the Report on August 23, 2016, and
Plaintiff filed her objections on September 9, 2016. The
Court has carefully reviewed Plaintiff's objections, but
holds them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter
protectively filed her application for DIB and SSI on October
26, 2011, asserting her disability commenced on June 1, 2011.
Later, Plaintiff's attorney moved to amend the alleged
onset date to February 28, 2013, to coincide with
Plaintiff's fiftieth birthday. Plaintiff's
application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ), which the ALJ conducted on September 19, 2013.
Then, on December 13, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding
Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Subsequently, the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of
the ALJ's decision. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision
became Defendant's final decision for purposes of
judicial review. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed suit in this
Court, seeking judicial review of Defendant's final
decision denying her claims.
Social Security Administration has established a five-step
sequential evaluation process for determining whether 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),
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 the
Magistrate Judge made in the Report.
Plaintiff's duty to both produce evidence and prove 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, the Court must view the entire
record as a whole. See Steurer v. Bowen, 815 F.2d,
1249, 1250 (8th Cir. 1987).
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). 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).
raises two specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's
Report. The Court will address each one in turn.
Plaintiff asserts the Magistrate Judge erred by
misapprehending her argument regarding the opinion of Dr.
Carol Benoit, a consultative physician. ECF No. 19 at 2.
Specifically, Plaintiff avers “[t]he ALJ failed to
connect her assertion that Dr. Benoit's findings were
given ‘substantial weight' with her own RFC finding
[that] Ms. Patterson could stand and walk six hours per
day.” Id. at 3. Plaintiff thus contends the
Magistrate Judge “erred in suggesting that Dr.
Benoit's opinion did not need to be discussed in light of
the other opinions of record.” Id. The Court
to Plaintiff's opinion, the ALJ compared the consistency
of Dr. Benoit's opinion with the record as a whole, not
just the other medical opinions in the record. See
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4) (explaining an opinion that
is more consistent “with the record as a whole”
will receive more weight). Here, the ALJ held Dr.
Benoit's findings were consistent with the record as a
whole. Tr. at 26. Specifically, the ALJ stated Dr.
Benoit's findings were “well supported by objective
diagnostic testing, her trained observations, an impartial
analysis of the evidence of record, and a well-reasoned
conclusion.” Id. Elsewhere in the decision,
the ALJ cited the absence of objective findings and a lack of
complaints from Plaintiff to her primary care physician, Dr.
Catherine Toomer, between October 2011 and January 2013.
Id. at 25-26. She also placed significant emphasis
on Plaintiff's activities of daily living and the fact
that Plaintiff's physicians had not recommended more
aggressive treatment. Id. at 27. She concluded
Plaintiff was not “symptom free” at all times,
but was not limited to the degree she alleged since her
claimed onset date. Id. Ultimately, the ALJ assessed
an RFC based on objective findings, Plaintiff's
subjective complaints, and the limitations advanced by the
consultative and reviewing physicians. Id.
as explained by the ALJ and the Magistrate Judge, Dr. Benoit
did not offer an opinion on Plaintiff's ability to work
or give functional limitations, but rather “merely
reported her observations and objective findings and assessed
diagnoses.” ECF No. 18 at 18 (citing Tr. at 26).
Therefore, a requirement to compare Dr. Benoit's
observations to the functional limitations assessed by Dr.
Toomer and Dr. Darla Mullaney would be problematic. The ALJ
noted Dr. Toomer opined Plaintiff was unable to work
full-time as a cashier, but provided no explanation for that
opinion. Tr. at 26. The ALJ also cited the absence of
objective findings in Dr. Toomer's records. Id.
at 25-26. Furthermore, as a non-treating, non-examining
physician, Dr. Mullaney could cite none of her own
observations. Id. at 26-27. Because Dr. Toomer and
Dr. Mullaney offered no observations akin to those of Dr.
Benoit, it would have been inappropriate for the ALJ to
compare their opinions regarding functional limitations and
Dr. Benoit's observations. Consequently, holding the
ALJ's decision on this issue is supported by substantial
evidence, the Court will overrule Plaintiff's first
Plaintiff insists the Magistrate Judge erred in inferring an
analysis by the ALJ that is unclear from the opinion as
written. ECF No. 19 at 3-4. Plaintiff claims the Magistrate
Judge inappropriately connected the time Plaintiff spent
standing during her part-time work with the ALJ's
decision to ignore the state agency medical consultants'
opinions, a connection the ALJ purportedly failed to make.
Id. at 4. Further, Plaintiff ...