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Morris v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Paige Gossett's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy Berryhill's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying claimant Andrea Mercena Morris's (“Morris”) application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Morris filed objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Morris initially filed for DIB on July 14, 2008, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2008. Tr 20. The Social Security Administration denied Morris's claim initially and upon reconsideration. Id. Morris requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Christine E. Dibble (“ALJ Dibble”) held a hearing on June 29, 2010. Tr. 30-47. ALJ Dibble issued a decision on November 1, 2010, finding that Morris was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Id. 20-27. Morris requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 105. The Appeals Council denied Morris's request for review, rendering ALJ Dibble's decision the final action of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. Morris appealed ALJ Dibble's decision to this court, which remanded for further evaluation of opinions of Dr. Jill Peterson. Tr. 487-508. Upon remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to further proceedings consistent with the order of this court. Tr. 511.

         On December 3, 2014, a second hearing was held where Morris appeared via video teleconference before ALJ Roseanne P. Gudzan (“ALJ”). Tr. 439-65. On February 13, 2015, the ALJ again issued a decision finding that Morris was not disabled. Tr. 413- 32. On April 23, 2015, Morris filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. Id. at 399-407. On April 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. Id. at 396-97.

         Morris filed the present action seeking review of the ALJ's decision on June 17, 2016. ECF No. 1. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on July 24, 2017 recommending ALJ's decision be affirmed. ECF No. 17. Morris filed objections to the R&R on August 7, 2017, to which the Commissioner responded on August 17, 2017. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Morris's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Morris was born on August 26, 1961 and was 48 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 430. She communicates in English and has obtained a high school degree education. Her past relevant work experience was as a cashier, a factory inspector, a sewing machine operator, and a small business owner of an arcade. Tr. 129, 134.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Morris was disabled from January 1, 2008 through the date last insured, June 30, 2010. The ALJ first determined that Morris did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 418. At the second step, the ALJ found that Morris suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease status post cervical spine fusion with cervical radiculopathy, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, headaches, renal osteodystrophy, and anemia. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Morris's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in the Agency's Listings of Impairments (“the Listings”). Tr. 418-20. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined Morris had the residual function capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with several limitations. Tr. 422. Specifically, the ALJ found that Morris could only engage in sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), except she could occasionally climb ramps or stairs and stoop but could never kneel, crouch, crawl, climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, balance for safety on dangerous surfaces, or have exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery and parts. Id. The ALJ also found that Morris could occasionally reach overhead and frequently reach out bilaterally and frequently handle and finger bilaterally. The ALJ found at step four that Morris was not capable of performing past relevant work. Id. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Morris's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 430-31. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Morris had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date.


         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision regarding disability benefits “is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Where conflicting evidence “allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ], ” not on the reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 ...

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