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Morton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

March 20, 2017

Cheryl Dawn Morton, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Hon. Margaret B. Seymour, Senior United States District Judge

         This is an action brought pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).[1]


         Plaintiff Cheryl Dawn Morton (“Plaintiff”) protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on November 29, 2011, alleging disability since May 1, 2011. ECF No. 13 at 4. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. R. 73, 84. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on March 25, 2014. R. 28. The ALJ issued a decision dated June 27, 2014, in which he concluded that Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. R. 12-23. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income under Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on July 22, 2014. R. 2-8. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the “final decision” of the Commissioner. Plaintiff thereafter brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn Austin for a Report and Recommendation. On December 7, 2016, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation in which she recommended that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits be affirmed. ECF No. 17. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on January 20, 2017. ECF No. 23. The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff's objections on February 1, 2017. ECF No. 24.

         This matter now is before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b).


         The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. Section 205(g) of the Act provides that “[t]he 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. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). The court must uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. 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. The statutorily granted right of review contemplates more than an uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative action.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). “[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 [her] conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are not binding if they were based upon the application of an improper legal standard. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). However, the Commissioner's denial of benefits shall be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support that determination. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).


         Plaintiff was fifty years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ regarding her applications for DIB and SSI. R. 31. She attended high school through eleventh grade and has since received her GED. Id. She has worked in the past as a stocker, house cleaner, limited construction worker, cashier, and substitute teacher. R. 21, 32-34. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, urinary incontinence (night only), degenerative disc disease, and hypertension, ” but “claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1.” R. 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except sit/stand, change position twice/hour; no climbing ropes/ladders/scaffolds; occasional climbing ramps/stairs; no overhead lifting; simple routine repetitive tasks (nonproduction environment); frequently, not constant handling, and fingering bilaterally.” R. 16. Lastly, the ALJ found that, even with these limitations, she could perform a number of jobs in the national economy. R. 22. Plaintiff asserts specific objections to the Report and Recommendation. The court will review each of these objections in turn.

         A. Objection One: Consideration of Treatment Plans

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge finding no error with the ALJ's failure to consider inability to afford treatment or lack of access to treatment in his determination that Plaintiff received conservative and/or routine treatment. ECF No. 23 at 1. The ALJ found

[C]laimant's contentions concerning an inability to work are [are not] entirely credible. The claimant's allegations are disproportionate to the clinical records and tests. The claimant has not generally received the type of medical treatment one would expect for a totally disabled individual. Although the claimant has received treatment for the allegedly ...

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