United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Honorable Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District
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
Yvonne Wigfall (“Plaintiff”) protectively filed
applications for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on June 11, 2010, alleging disability
since May 19, 2010, due to meningitis, diabetes, high blood
pressure, and high cholesterol. ECF No. 16 at 3. Plaintiff
was fifty-seven years old at the time of her last hearing
before the ALJ regarding her applications for DIB and SSI. R.
25. She is now sixty. Plaintiff has a high school education.
Id. Plaintiff worked as a utility worker at Cross
Generator Station for approximately fifteen years. R. 31, 50.
Plaintiff last worked on May 18, 2010. R. 46. Plaintiff had
been complaining of headaches and other pains for
approximately a week in early May 2010, and when she did not
return home from work on May 18, 2010, her family grew
concerned and went to find her. R. 318. Plaintiff's
family found her at work, where she was “confused with
altered mental status.” Id. She was
transported to the hospital by ambulance and was diagnosed
with pneumococcal meningitis, type two diabetes,
hypertension, and proteinuria. Id. Plaintiff
remained in the hospital for one week and was then discharged
to receive “home health care.” R. 319.
applications for DIB and SSI were denied initially and on
reconsideration. R. 70, 75. At the first step of the
determination, the Social Security Administration determined
Plaintiff's conditions of “meningitis, diabetes,
high blood pressure, and high cholesterol” were severe
enough to prevent Plaintiff from working; however, Plaintiff
failed to demonstrate the conditions would prevent her from
performing all types of work for more than twelve months. R.
70, 75. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a
hearing on April 19, 2012. R. 42-55. The ALJ issued a
decision dated June 21, 2012. In the 2012 decision, the ALJ
determined her severe conditions to be “post-status
meningitis and headaches, ” but the conditions were not
severe enough to prevent her from working. R. 81.
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not
entitled to DIB or SSI 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
granted by the Appeals Council on August 2, 2013. R. 89-92.
The Appeals Council ordered the ALJ to clarify the record on
Plaintiff's claims of disability due to depression and
obesity and vacated the 2012 decision. R. 90.
attended a second hearing before the ALJ on May 14, 2014. R.
22-41. Plaintiff submitted additional medical history
reports. The ALJ issued a second decision on June 20, 2014,
stating that Plaintiff had a severe impairment of
“obesity, ” but not depression or meningitis. R.
12-13. The ALJ found that “[w]hile the claimant also
complained of meningitis . . . the symptoms appear to have
totally resolved.” R. 13. The ALJ found the treating
physician's opinion that Plaintiff is unable to obtain
and maintain gainful employment “is unsupported by the
treatment records and is further unsupported by the weight of
other evidence in the records.” R. 15. The ALJ noted
“on examination in April 2013, [the treating physician]
noted normal range of motion, muscle strength, and stability
in all extremities with no pain on inspection.” R. 15.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of
“obesity, ” but “d[id] 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's allegations of
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of headaches and
light sensitivity was not supported by the record and not
entirely credible. R. 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff
“has the residual functional capacity to perform the
full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c)
and 416.967(c)” R. 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is
capable of performing past relevant work as a utility
worker[, which] does not require the performance of
work-related activities precluded by the claimant's
residual functional capacity.” R. 15. Accordingly, the
ALJ again 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 appealed this decision to the
Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on July
7, 2015. R. 1-3. 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.
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 Mary Gordon Baker for a Report and Recommendation (the
“Report”). On January 31, 2017, the Magistrate
Judge filed a Report in which she recommended that the
Commissioner's decision to deny benefits be affirmed. ECF
No. 16. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report on February
14, 2017. ECF No. 18. The Commissioner filed a response to
Plaintiff's objections on February 27, 2017. ECF No. 19.
This matter now is before the court for review of the
Magistrate Judge's Report. 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). For the reasons stated below, the court declines to
adopt the Magistrate Judge's Report, reverses the
decision of the Commissioner, and remands the matter for
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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. In reviewing the
decision of the Commissioner, the court must “closely
scrutinize the administrative proceedings to insure a result
consistent with congressional intent and elemental
fairness.” Flack, 413 F.2d at 280.
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).
Magistrate Judge found that the Commissioner's final
decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be
affirmed. ECF No. 16 at 1. The Magistrate Judge found that
the ALJ did not err in assigning “little weight”
to Plaintiff's treating physician's “conclusory
opinion” that Plaintiff is unable to work. Id.
at 7. The Magistrate Judge next found that there was
substantial evidence to support the ALJ's determination
of which alleged impairments were “severe” and
the ALJ did not err in determining there were no
“functional limitations caused by such
conditions.” Id. at 8-11. The Magistrate Judge
further determined that any error was harmless as the ALJ
continued to the next step after finding the one severe
impairment of obesity. Id. at 11. Lastly, the
Magistrate Judge found that substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's determination that “Plaintiff's
allegation of symptoms of disabling severity to be less than
fully credible.” Id. at 14. Plaintiff asserts
specific objections to the Report. The court will review each
of these objections in turn.
Objection One: Evaluation of Treating Physician's
objects to the Magistrate Judge finding no error with the
ALJ's assignment of “little weight to the treating
physician's opinion that [Plaintiff] was unable to obtain
and maintain gainful employment due to her medical conditions
of meningitis, chronic headaches, hypertension, and
diabetes.” ECF No. 18 at 1. Plaintiff concedes that the
ALJ appropriately considered 6F (R. 362-78), 11F (R. 320-23),
13F (R. 433-50), and 14F (R.451) ...