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Trinemeyer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

February 13, 2017

Christopher A. Trinemeyer, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Christopher A. Trinemeyer (“Trinemeyer”), brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“SSA”).[1] This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation (“Report”) of the United States Magistrate Judge, made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., concerning the disposition of social security cases in this district. (ECF No. 27).[2] The Report recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Background

         Trinemeyer filed an application for DIB in May 2011, alleging that he became unable to work on September 1, 2010, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, depressions, and peroneal tendon reconstruction. He later amended his alleged disability onset date to August 2, 2013. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. He requested a review by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and an ALJ conducted a hearing on May 15, 2015.

         On June 9, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Trinemeyer was not disabled as defined in the SSA. The ALJ found that Trinemeyer suffered from a combination of severe impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), degenerative joint disease, history of traumatic head injury, and migraines The ALJ went on to find that Trinemeyer's impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria for any of the listed impairments through the date last insured of August 2, 2013. Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to assess Trinemeyer's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that Trinemeyer could perform sedentary work with some limitations. The ALJ concluded that Trinemeyer could not perform his past relevant work, but that he could perform other jobs in existence in the national economy in significant numbers and, therefore, denied his claim.

         Trinemeyer sought review by the Appeals Council. On August 18, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. Trinemeyer then filed this action for judicial review on October 22, 2015. The magistrate judge filed his Report on November 8, 2016. (ECF No. 27). On December 1, 2016, Trinemeyer filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 30), and on December 15, 2016, the Commissioner filed a reply to those objections (ECF No. 31). This matter is now ripe for review.

         II. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         However, “[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.

         III. Analysis

         In his objections, Trinemeyer contends that the magistrate judge erred by finding that ALJ correctly: 1) weighed the opinions of the Veterans' Administration (“VA”) and Dr. Norman Farley, Ph.D.; 2) determined Trinemeyer's RFC; and 3) assessed his credibility.

         A) VA and Dr. Farley's Opinions

         First, as to the VA disability opinion, Trinemeyer contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider the VA opinion evidence. Trinemeyer has a total 90% service connected disability rating with a 70% rating due to PTSD and a 20% due to limited motion of his right ankle. (Tr. 383).[3] In the record, there is a Compensation and Pension Review examination from February 2015, but the actual disability determination and decision from the VA is not in evidence.

         In Bird, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an ALJ is to give a VA disability rating substantial weight unless the record clearly demonstrates that the rating deserves less than substantial weight. Moreover, pursuant to Bird, the ALJ is required to explain his treatment of the VA ratings in the written decision. Bird v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337 (4thCir. 2012). In his decision, after discussing the holding in Bird, the ALJ stated that the evidence as to Trinemeyer's VA combined 90% disability rating ...

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