United States District Court, D. South Carolina
Lucinda Gardner, as personal representative of the Estate of Linda B. Wynn, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Richard Mark Gergel United States District Judge.
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
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
Impact of Claimant's Death on Survivability of Claims on
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).
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.
The ALJ Providing Limited Weight to the Opinions of the
Claimant's Treating Specialist Physician
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 ...