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Woodbury v. Colvin

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

September 30, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn Colvin's (the “Commissioner”) decision denying plaintiff Jo Ann Woodbury's (“Woodbury”) claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Woodbury filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Woodbury filed an application for DIB on January 5, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2011. The Social Security Administration denied Woodbury's claim initially and on reconsideration. Woodbury requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and ALJ Carl B. Watson held a video hearing on December 17, 2013. The ALJ issued a decision on March 7, 2014, finding that Woodbury was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Woodbury requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, rendering the ALJ's decision the final action of the Commissioner.

         On July 2, 2015, Woodbury filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on June 13, 2016, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Woodbury filed objections to the R&R on June 30, 2016, and the Commissioner responded to Woodbury's objections on July 18, 2016. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Woodbury's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Woodbury was 54 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. She communicates in English and has a high school education with two years of college.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Woodbury was disabled between December 1, 2011, and December 31, 2015, the date Woodbury was last insured under 20 CFR § 404.1520(g). At step one, the ALJ determined that Woodbury had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that Woodbury suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) osteoarthritis, (2) fibromyalgia, (3) diabetes mellitus, (4) hypertension, and (5) obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Woodbury's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments in the Agency's Listing of Impairments (“the Listings”). Tr. 16-17; see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Woodbury had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), with certain restrictions. Tr. 18-22. More specifically, the ALJ determined that Woodbury must avoid working at unprotected heights and could never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch and crawl. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Woodbury was able to perform her past relevant work as a customer service representative and insurance agent. Id. at 22. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Woodbury was not disabled. Id.


         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987)


         Woodbury objects to the R&R on two grounds, arguing that the magistrate judge erred in finding that: (1) the ALJ properly explained his decision to attribute “significant weight” to examining physician Dr. James Way's (“Way”) opinion, even though certain portions of that opinion undermine the ALJ's finding that Woodbury's mental impairments were not severe, and (2) the ALJ did not err in failing to address Woodbury's GAF scores. The court will address each objection in turn.

         A. ...

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