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Ingram v. Berryhill

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

September 25, 2017

Salina Ingram, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Salina Ingram (“Ingram”), 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 her 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. Before this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 19).[2] In the Report, the magistrate judge sets forth the relevant facts and legal standards, which are incorporated herein by reference. Ingram filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 22), and the Commissioner filed a response to those objections (ECF No. 23). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

         BACKGROUND

         Ingram applied for DIB and SSI on January 13, 2011, alleging disability beginning on September 17, 2008. Ingram's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On May 23, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Ingram and a vocational expert. On June 28, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Ingram's claim.

         Ingram sought review of her case by the Appeals Council. On May 29, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. On August 27, 2014, the ALJ held another hearing at which Ingram and a vocational expert testified. On November 6, 2014, the ALJ issued a second decision denying Ingram's claim. In his decision, the ALJ found that Ingram suffered from the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (ECF No. 19 at 2). The ALJ found that, despite Ingram's limitations, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. (ECF No. 19 at 3). Ingram sought review of her case by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Ingram's second request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The present action followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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, 76 F.3d at 589.

         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.

         DISCUSSION

         In her objections, Ingram contends that the magistrate judge erred by (1) finding that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that Ingram did not meet Listing 12.05C, (2) improperly considering the opinion evidence of Dr. John C. Whitley, III, Ph.D., (3) improperly considering the opinion evidence of Dr. Gregory Fortner, M.D.'s report, and (4) improperly assigning little weight to Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores.

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Listing 12.05 provided, in pertinent part:

Intellectual Disability: Intellectual disability refers to significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22. [Prong 1]
The required level of severity for this disorder is met when the requirements in A, B, C, or D are satisfied.
*** C. A valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70 [Prong 2] and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant ...

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