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Coulter v. Berryhill

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

April 13, 2017

John Crawford Coulter, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY, United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff John Crawford Coulter's objections to the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation (“R & R”) (ECF Nos. 28 & 26). The Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying Coulter's claim for social security disability benefits. For the reasons stated herein, the Court overrules one objection, sustains another, and remands to the agency.


         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The R & R has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). Parties may make written objections to the R & R within fourteen days after being served with a copy of it. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a specific objection is made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations in whole or in part. Id. Additionally, the Court may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. Id. A party's failure to object is taken as the party's agreement with the Magistrate Judge's conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985). Absent a timely, specific objection-or as to those portions of the R & R to which no specific objection is made-this Court “must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's note).


Coulter has raised two arguments in his challenge of the Commissioner's decision. First, he argues the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinions of two of his physicians. Second, Coulter contends the ALJ improperly failed to consider the combined effect of all of his impairments when determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The Magistrate Judge found no merit to either argument. Coulter's two objections to the R & R correspond to his two stated grounds for seeking judicial review. The Court addresses each seriatim.

         I. The ALJ's Assessment of Coulter's Physicians' Opinions

         The record before the ALJ included opinions from two of Coulter's physicians, Dr. David Rogers and Dr. Stephanie Vanterpool. The ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Rogers' opinion regarding Coulter's upper extremities. As for Dr. Vanterpool, the ALJ assigned significant weight to part of her opinion about Coulter's work capabilities; however, the ALJ found another portion of her opinion not credible. Coulter challenged the ALJ's assessments of those opinions, but the Magistrate Judge concluded the ALJ appropriately weighed those opinions and explained his assessment of each one.

         Coulter now states that he objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion regarding the ALJ's assessment of Dr. Vanterpool's opinion.[2] However, Coulter spends his objection only arguing why he believes the ALJ erred-something he already did in his briefs, which the Magistrate Judge considered. Coulter does not identify errors he believes the Magistrate Judge made. That is not an appropriate objection. See, e.g., Weber v. Aiken-Partain, No. 8:11-cv-2423-GRA, 2012 WL 489148, at *2 (D.S.C. Feb. 15, 2012) (noting that objections merely rehashing arguments raised to the magistrate are insufficient to direct the court to a specific error in an R & R). The Court therefore overrules Coulter's first objection. Having carefully reviewed the R & R and the record, the Court is satisfied that the Magistrate Judge made no clear errors in her analysis of this issue. The Court therefore adopts the portion of the R & R addressing Coulters' physicians' opinions.

         II. The Combined Effects of Coulter's Impairments

         Where, as here, an ALJ determines that a claimant has multiple impairments, the ALJ must consider the combined effects of those impairments and must “adequately explain his or her evaluation” of those combined effects. Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989). The ALJ must perform those tasks throughout the disability determination process. See Arant v. Colvin, No. 2:14-cv-1539-MGL-MGB, 2015 WL 5785544, at *5 (D.S.C. Sept. 29, 2015).

         The ALJ found that Coulter suffers severe impairments from ankylosing spondylosis and Crohn's disease, as well as non-severe impairments from gout, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and alcohol abuse. Coulter claims that when the ALJ determined Coulter's RFC, he failed to consider the combined effects of those impairments and, consequently, failed to explain his evaluation of them.

         In his identification of Coulter's impairments, the ALJ found that Coulter's three mental-health impairments, even in combination, imposed only minimal limitations on Coulter's ability to work. Then, in his step-three analysis of whether Coulter's impairments met or equaled any specific listed disabling impairment, the ALJ twice wrote the following:

The undersigned [has] specifically considered the cumulative effects of the impairments on [Coulter's] ability to work. See Walker v. Bowen889 F.2d 47 (4th Cir. 1989). The undersigned noted that the claimant's impairments caused him exertional, postural, and environmental limitations. Nonetheless, the ...

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