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Dozier v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2017

MICAH DOZIER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (the “Commissioner”) decision denying plaintiff Micah Dozier's (“Dozier”) application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons set forth below, the court rejects the R&R, and reverses and remands the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Dozier filed an application for DIB on February 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 8, 2011 (the “alleged onset date”). Tr. 114-17. The Social Security Administration denied Dozier's claims initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 10. Dozier requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Robert C. Allen held a hearing on September 16, 2013. Tr. 26-46. The ALJ issued a decision on November 8, 2013, finding that Dozier was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Tr. 7-19. Dozier requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council declined Dozier's request, Tr. 1-6, rendering the ALJ's decision the final action of the Commissioner.

         On February 20, 2015, Dozier filed this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued the R&R on September 26, 2016, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Dozier filed objections to the R&R on October 14, 2016, and the Commissioner responded to Dozier's objections on October 20, 2016. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Dozier's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Dozier was born on August 18, 1965 and was 43 years old on the alleged onset date. Tr. 40. He communicates in English and has at least a high school education. Tr. 40-41

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Dozier had been under a disability since the alleged onset date. The ALJ first determined that Dozier had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Dozier suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and chronic pain sydrome. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Dozier's impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). Tr. 12-13. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Dozier had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform: “light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b)” except for lifting and carrying over 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and that Dozier could not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and could do no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling. Tr. 13. At step four, the ALJ found that Dozier was unable to perform his past relevant work, but based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, Dozier could perform certain jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 17. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Dozier had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date.


         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         III. ...

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