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Heffner v. Berryhill

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

September 6, 2017

Donald Dwayne Heffner, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Donald Dwayne Heffner (“Heffner”), brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), [1] denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Now before this court is the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending the court to affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 10).[2] In the Report, the Magistrate Judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Heffner has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 11), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 13). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 16, 2012, Heffner applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on March 21, 2011. Heffner's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On June 12, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Heffner and a vocational expert (“VE”). On September 25, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Heffner's claim.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Heffner suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculitis, status post multiple surgeries, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. (ECF No. 6-2 at 18). The ALJ found that Heffner was disabled from March 21, 2011, through December 31, 2012. (ECF No. 6-2 at 27). However, beginning January 1, 2013, the ALJ found that, although Heffner still suffered from the same severe impairments, medical improvement occurred due to an August 2012 back surgery. Id. The ALJ then concluded that beginning January 1, 2013, Heffner, despite limitations, could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (ECF No. 6-2 at 30-31). Heffner sought review of his case by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Heffner's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This action followed.


         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, “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 . . . 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). Thus, in its review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         However, “[f]rom this it does not follow . . . 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 agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the 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 this conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.


         In his objections, Heffner contends that the Magistrate Judge erred 1) by concluding that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision to expand Heffner's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) beginning on January 1, 2013; and 2) by finding that the ALJ did not err in discounting the opinions of a treating physician, Dr. Philip Toussaint, and Nurse Practitioner Terry Sims.

         A) RFC

         The primary issue in this case is whether the ALJ's determination that Heffner medically improved beginning January 1, 2013, such that his RFC was expanded, is supported by substantial evidence. A medical improvement is defined as “any decrease in the medical severity of your impairment which was present at the time of your most recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or continued to be disabled.” 20 CFR § 404.1594(b)(1). Such a determination “must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated with your impairment(s), and must be related to the ability of the claimant to perform work activities.” 20 CFR § 404.1594(b)(1), 404.1594(b) (3).

         The ALJ found that Heffner was disabled for the closed period of March 21, 2011, to December 31, 2012, but found that post-surgery, as of January 1, 2013, Heffner was able to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions. Specifically, the ALJ determined that beginning January 1, 2013, Plaintiff had the RFC to:

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks. He must use a cane to ambulate, but it is not needed at the workstation. He can sit for 45 minutes, and stand for ...

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