United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division
Kimberly C. Roberson, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge
plaintiff, Kimberly C. Roberson (“Roberson”),
brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act
(“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking
judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security (“Commissioner”),  denying her claim
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). In
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil
Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a
magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Before this court is
the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation
(“Report”), recommending that the court affirm
the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 15). In the Report,
the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal
standards, which are incorporated herein by reference.
Roberson filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 17), and the
Commissioner responded to those objections (ECF No. 21).
Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.
applied for DIB in January 2012, alleging disability
beginning on June 17, 2011. Roberson's application was
denied initially and on reconsideration. On December 19,
2013, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard
testimony from Roberson and a vocational expert. On March 30,
2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Roberson's claim.
decision, the ALJ found that Roberson suffered from the
following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of
the lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and
gastrointestinal conditions, including irritable bowel
syndrome (“IBS”) and ulcerative colitis. (ECF No.
5-2 at 14). The ALJ found that, despite Roberson's
limitations, she could perform past relevant work as a
bookkeeper and as an office clerk, as this work did not
require the performance of work-related activities precluded
by Roberson's residual functional capacity. (ECF No. 5-2
at 45). Roberson sought review of her case by the Appeals
Council. The Appeals Council denied Roberson's request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision
of the Commissioner. This action followed.
federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative
scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act
provides, “the 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 . . . as
more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.”
Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir.
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). Thus, in its
review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute [its] own judgment for that of the
[Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996).
“[f]rom this it does not follow . . . 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
agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279
(4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the 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 this conclusion is
rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.
objections, Roberson contends that the magistrate judge erred
by finding the weight that ALJ assigned to the treating
physicians' opinions was supported by substantial
Roberson alleges that the ALJ erroneously discounted the
opinion of Dr. Krishniah, Roberson's primary treating
physician, because he is not a specialist in the medical
areas at issue. The regulation cited by Roberson states that
“generally . . . more weight [is given] to the opinion
of a specialist about medical issues related to his or her
area of specialty than to the opinion of a source who is not
a specialist.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(5). The ALJ did not state that Dr.
Krishniah's opinion was given less consideration because
he was not a specialist. Rather, the ALJ considered Dr.
Krishniah's analysis in detail and attributed limited
weight to it due to the fact that Dr. Krishniah's
opinions were not supported by Roberson's subjective
remarks and daily activities; Roberson's hospital
records; some of Dr. Rickoff's records; and Dr.
Krishniah's treatment notes, including his examinations
and diagnostic tests. (ECF No. 5-2 at 34-38).
examined, discussed and referenced each of the four
questionnaires completed by Dr. Krishniah. (ECF 5-2 at
31-33). In weighing this evidence, the ALJ addressed the
relevant factors, observing that Dr. Krishniah was a treating
physician, and the relationship consisted of multiple office
visits and examinations extending over at least two and a
half years. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654
(4th Cir. 2005) (A treating physician's opinion is
evaluated and weighed “pursuant to the following
non-exclusive list: (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.”); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171,
178 (4th Cir. 2001) (“‘[I]f a physician's
opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is
inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be
accorded significantly less weight.' Under such
circumstances, the ALJ holds the discretion to give less
weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face
of persuasive contrary evidence.” (quoting
Craig, 76 F.3d at 590)). The ALJ detailed ways in
which Dr. Krishniah's opinions were not supported by
Roberson's subjective remarks and daily activities;
Roberson's hospital records; some records of Dr. Rickoff;
and Dr. Krishniah's own treatment notes. (ECF No. 5-2 at
34-38). The ALJ noted that, “Dr. Krishniah has offered
several statements on the claimant's behalf that largely
support her allegations, ” but found that “in
many respects, Dr. Krishniah's statements underestimate
the claimant's level of functioning, ” and,
considering the record, gave his opinions limited weight.
(ECF No. 5-2 at 33).
analysis, the ALJ observed that Dr. Krishniah is an
internist, and thus “not necessarily an expert in the
evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of any of the
claimant's alleged impairments, including the
gastrointestinal problems, mental conditions, diabetic
conditions, fibromyalgia, or back problems.”
Id. However, the evidence does not suggest that this
fact alone caused the ALJ to give Dr. Krishniah's opinion
less weight, as opposed to merely pointing out why
Dr. Krishniah's opinion was not entitled to more
weight as a specialist's would be according to §
404.1527(c)(5). Judging the record as a whole, Roberson has
failed to demonstrate that the ALJ's decision was
unsupported by substantial evidence or reached through
application of an incorrect legal standard.
Roberson alleges that the ALJ erroneously rejected the
opinions of Dr. Rickoff, a treating physician. The ALJ
attributed only slight weight to Dr. Rickoff's opinion
because he found that Dr. Rickoff's opinion
underestimated Roberson's level of functioning and that
Roberson's subjective remarks, Rickoff's own
treatment notes, Roberson's ...