United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge
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”),  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). 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.
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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
“[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.
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.
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),
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 ...