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Gardner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

June 7, 2017

Lucinda Gardner, as personal representative of the Estate of Linda B. Wynn, [1]Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Richard Mark Gergel United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 DSC, this matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") on May 10, 2017, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Dkt. No. 21). Plaintiff thereafter timely filed objections to the R & R, and the Commissioner filed a response. (Dkt. Nos. 26, 27). For reasons set forth below, the Court adopts the R & R as the order of this Court, with further elaboration as set forth below.

         Legal Standard

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which specific objection is made. The Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. 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. The Act provides that 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 preponderance." Thomas v, Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). This standard precludes de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court's findings of fact for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157 (4th Cir. 1971).

         Although the federal court's review role is a limited one, "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). Further, 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, 519 (4th Cir. 1987).

         Under the regulations of the Social Security Administration, the Commissioner is obligated to consider all medical evidence and the opinions of medical sources, including treating physicians. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b), This includes the duty to "evaluate every medical opinion we receive." Id. § 404.1527(c). Special consideration is to be given to the opinions of treating physicians of the claimant, based on the view that "these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations." Id. § 404.1527(c)(2).

         Under some circumstances, the opinions of the treating physicians are to be accorded controlling weight. Even where the opinions of the treating physicians of the claimant are not accorded controlling weight, the Commissioner is obligated to weigh all medical opinions in light of a broad range of factors, including the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, length of treatment, nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinions in the medical record, consistency, and whether the treating physician was a specialist. Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(5). The Commissioner is obligated to weigh the findings and opinions of treating physicians and to give "good reasons" in the written decision for the weight given to a treating source's opinions. SSR 96-2P, 61 Fed. Reg. 34490, 34492 (July 2, 1996). Further, since the Commissioner recognizes that the non-examining expert has "no treating or examining relationship" with the claimant, she pledges to consider their supporting explanations for their opinions and "the degree to which these opinions consider all of the pertinent evidence in your claim, including opinions of treating and examining sources." § 404.1527(c)(3).


         A. Impact of Claimant's Death on Survivability of Claims on Appeal

         The claimant applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and DIB. The ALJ decision denying Ms. Wynn SSI and DIB was issued on June 16, 2014. Ms. Wynn filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the adverse decision on August 4, 2014. Ms. Wynn died on November 11, 2015. Ms. Lucinda Gardner, the sister of Ms. Wynn, was appointed the personal representative of her estate by the Dorchester County Probate Court on December 9, 2015. Tr. 2-3, 371; (Dkt. Nos. 29, 29-1).

         The Appeals Council dismissed Ms. Wynn's SSI claim on January 27, 2016 because Social Security Act regulations provide that SSI claims do not survive death under the circumstances present in this matter. 20 C.F.R. 416.1471(b), 416.542(b); Tr. 2. Social Security regulations provide, however, that DIB claims do survive the death of the claimant. 20 C.F.R, 404.503(b)(7). The Appeals Council denied review of the surviving DIB claim, and Ms. Gardner, on behalf of Ms. Wynn's estate, then appealed the denial of the DIB claim to this Court. Tr. 4-6; (Dkt. No. 1). Consequently, the only claim pending in this appeal in the DIB claim.

         B. The ALJ Providing Limited Weight to the Opinions of the Claimant's Treating Specialist Physician

         By way of background, Plaintiff applied for DIB with an initial onset date of August 13, 2011, which was one day following an earlier ALJ decision of August 12, 2011 denying the claimant's application for Social Security disability benefits. The earlier decision concluded that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity to perform medium work. Tr. 76-83. The claimant's new application, with the August 13, 2011 onset date, was denied administratively, and an administrative hearing before the ALJ on June 16, 2014. Thereafter, on August 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the claimant suffered from several severe impairments, including post-right ankle surgery, obesity, depression, and anxiety but nonetheless retained the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full ...

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