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Edmunds v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

March 17, 2017

Margaret P. Edmunds, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Margaret P. Edmunds filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). (ECF No. 1.)

         This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation (“Report”) of United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III, issued in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 (B)(2)(a) (D.S.C.). (ECF No. 20.) On November 16, 2016, Magistrate Judge Rogers recommended reversing the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) “pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative action.” (ECF No. 20 at 21.) The Commissioner timely filed Objections to the Report (“Objections”) on December 1, 2015. (ECF No. 22.)

         For the reasons set forth below, the court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 20), and REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Report contains a thorough recitation of the relevant factual and procedural background of this matter. (ECF No. 20 at 1-11.) The court concludes, upon its own careful review of the record, that the Report's factual and procedural summation is accurate, and the court adopts this summary as its own. The court will only reference background pertinent to the analysis of Plaintiff's claims.

         Plaintiff was born on January 14, 1955, and is presently 62 years old. (ECF No. 9-7 at 2.) Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 21, 2010, alleging disability since June 18, 2006, after reinjuring her wrist following bilateral carpal tunnel surgery, which also bothered her shoulder and caused depression because of the constant pain. (ECF No. 9-3 at 6-16.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on June 14, 2010 (ECF No. 9-4 at 62-64), and also upon its reconsideration on December 22, 2010 (ECF No. 9-4 at 71-72). As a result, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on February 18, 2011. (ECF No. 9-4 at 74-75.) On November 4, 2011, Administrative Law Judge Marcus Christ (“ALJ Christ”) found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act (“SSA”) because “the claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as a shipping and receiving clerk and a pastry chef [which] did not require the performance of work related activities precluded by the [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.” (ECF No. 9-2 at 19.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 14, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. (ECF 9-2 at 2.)

         On April 19, 2013, Plaintiff commenced an action in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB. Edmunds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., C/A 4:13-cv-01073-JMC, ECF No. 1 (D.S.C. Apr. 19, 2013). On August 15, 2014, the court determined that further administrative action was necessary to determine if the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and remanded the matter to the Commissioner. Edmunds, C/A 4:13-cv-01073-JMC, ECF No. 29 at 2. After a second hearing before ALJ Christ on May 28, 2015 (ECF No. 9-9 at 20-33), Plaintiff was issued another unfavorable notice of decision on July 20, 2015. (ECF No. 9-9 at 2-15.)

         On September 28, 2015, Plaintiff commenced the instant action in this court to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision that denied Plaintiff's claim for DIB. (ECF No. 1.) On November 16, 2016, Magistrate Judge Rogers recommended reversing the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claims for DIB pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and remanding this action to the Commissioner for further administrative action. (ECF No. 20.) The Commissioner timely filed Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report on December 1, 2016. (ECF No 22.) Plaintiff filed a Reply to the Commissioner's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation on December 13, 2016. (ECF No. 24.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976.) The court reviews de novo only those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which specific objections are filed, and reviews those portions which are not objected to for clear error, including those portions to which only “general and conclusory” objections have been made. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); See also Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the magistrate judge or recommit the matter with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. 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 innumerable times 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. See Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). The court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). “From this it does not follow, however, that the findings of the administrative agency are to be mechanically accepted.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). “The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative agency.” Id. “[T]he 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

         A. The Magistrate Judge's Review

         In the report, the Magistrate Judge addressed the Plaintiff's contentions that (1) the ALJ's analysis was flawed “[because] the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the opinions of treating physician Dr. Edward Nolan are unsound and do not comport with the facts on the record but rely on his assertion that the objective evidence does not support her complaints, ” and (2) “most of the reasons [the Commissioner] cites to doubt [Plaintiff's] credibility relates to a lack of objective medical evidence, a method of analysis prohibited by the relevant rules, rulings, and cases.” (ECF No. 20 at 11-12, 19.)

         First, the Magistrate Judge explained that this action should be remanded for evaluation of Dr. Nolan's opinion under the proper standards of 20 C.F.R. § ...


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