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Prescott v. Berryhill

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

September 27, 2017

Erica Anne Prescott, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Honorable Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge

         This is an action brought pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).


         Plaintiff Erica Anne Prescott (“Plaintiff”) protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on November 4, 2014, alleging disability beginning on March 20, 2011. R. 9. She amended her onset date to April 27, 2013.[2] R. 326. Her application was denied initially on March 12, 2015, and upon reconsideration on July 10, 2015. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on December 10, 2015, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. R. 9. The ALJ issued a decision dated January 12, 2016, in which she concluded that Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. R. 9-24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on March 9, 2016. R. 1-4. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the “final decision” of the Commissioner. Plaintiff thereafter brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III for a Report and Recommendation. On May 23, 2017, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation in which he recommended that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits be affirmed. ECF No. 21. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on June 6, 2017. ECF No. 23. The Commissioner filed a response to Plaintiff's objections on June 15, 2017. ECF No. 25.

         This matter now is before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28. U.S.C. § 636(b).


         The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. Section 205(g) of the Act provides that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 4059(g). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times 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). The court must uphold the Commissioner's decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). “From this 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 uncritical rubber stamping of the administrative action.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). “[T]he 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 [her] conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

         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, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). However, the Commissioner's denial of benefits shall be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support that determination. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).


         Plaintiff was forty-six years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ regarding her application for DIB. R. 23. She graduated from college with a BA degree in legal studies. R. 35-36. Plaintiff worked as a paralegal until she was laid off in May 2010. R. 36. She then worked as a substitute teacher until June 2013. R. 243. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and diffuse disease of connective tissues, ” but “claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1.” R. 11-12. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b) except climb ladders; ropes; scaffolds; concentrated exposure to extreme cold; and is limited to occasional interaction with the general public.” R. 14. Lastly, the ALJ found that, even with these limitations, Plaintiff could perform a number of jobs in the national economy. R. 23-24. Plaintiff asserts specific objections to the Report and Recommendation. The court will review each of these objections in turn.

         A. Objection One: Plaintiff's Credibility

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility and adequately reviewed the record. ECF No. 23 at 1. The ALJ found

[C]laimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not ...

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