United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division
Mary L. Johnson, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge
plaintiff, Mary L. Johnson (“Johnson”), 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”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 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. Now 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.
Johnson filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 17), and the
Commissioner responded to those objections (ECF No. 19).
Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.
applied for DIB in August 2012, and SSI in September 2013,
alleging disability beginning on July 6, 2012. Johnson's
application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On
April 1, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) heard testimony from Johnson and a
vocational expert. During the hearing, Johnson amended her
disability onset date to May 1, 2013. On June 16, 2014, the
ALJ issued a decision denying Johnson's claim, concluding
that she was not disabled from May 1, 2013, through the date
of the decision.
decision, the ALJ found that Johnson suffered from the
following severe impairments: spine disorders, fibromyalgia,
torn meniscus (left knee), impingement syndrome of the left
shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and neck pain.
(ECF No. 10-2 at 15). The ALJ found that, despite
Johnson's limitations, jobs existed in significant
numbers in the national economy that she could perform. (ECF
No. 10-2 at 25). Johnson sought review of her case by the
Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Johnson'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.
submitted a single objection, contending that the magistrate
judge erred by finding that the ALJ's decision was
supported by substantial evidence despite presenting an
allegedly improper hypothetical to the vocational expert
(“VE”). Specifically, Johnson argues that the ALJ
failed to include Johnson's moderate limitation in
concentration, persistence, and pace in the hypothetical
causing it to be incomplete.
uses five steps to determine a claimant's disability. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The relevant steps in this case
are steps three, four, and five. At step three, if the ALJ
determines that a claimant's medically determinable
impairments are not sufficient to automatically entitle the
claimant to disability status under the Code of Federal
Regulations, then the analysis proceeds to the next step.
(ECF No. 10-2 at 14-15). Between steps three and four, the
ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), which is an individual's
ability to do physical and mental work activities on a
sustained basis despite limitations from the individual's
impairments. Id. At step four, the ALJ must
determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform any
past relevant work. Id. If the claimant lacks the
RFC for past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step
five, where the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has
the RFC to perform any other work. Id.
case, the ALJ determined at step three that “[w]ith
regard to concentration, persistence or pace, [Johnson] has
moderate difficulties, ” but, ultimately, did not have
an impairment that automatically entitled her to disability
status under the Code of Federal Regulations. Id. at
17. The ALJ's findings concerning Johnson's
concentration, persistence, or pace were directly reflected
in the RFC assessment the ALJ undertook before proceeding to
step four. (Id. at 17) (stating that the
“residual functional capacity assessment reflect[ed]
the degree of limitation [the ALJ] found in the . . . mental
analyzing Johnson's RFC, the ALJ discussed Johnson's
mental impairment and depression, in depth. The ALJ noted
that the claimant had not required any inpatient psychiatric
hospitalizations for stabilization of symptoms, had not
sought mental health treatment, nor had she experienced any
episodes of decompensation. Id. at 22. Moreover, a
mental status examination showed that Johnson was alert and
cooperative; her thoughts were logical and coherent; and her
speech was normal. Id.
in March 2014 the claimant reported that the depression
symptoms had only been for the past couple of
weeks.Id. Additionally, the ALJ found
that Johnson's testimony that she performed job searches
on the computer while maintaining that she was disabled in an
effort to gain unemployment benefits reflected negatively on
her credibility. Id. Paired with the fact that her
assertions of limitations were inconsistent with medical
evidence of record, the ALJ found Johnson's