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Bigby v. Colvin

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

September 28, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that this court affirm the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) to deny plaintiff Mary Frances Bigby's (“Bigby”) application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and social security insurance benefits (“SSI”). For the reasons set forth below, the court rejects the R&R, and reverses and remands the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Bigby filed an application for SSI and DIB on May 31, 2012. Tr. 18. In each application, Bigby alleged disability beginning January 15, 2012 (the “alleged onset date”). Id. The Social Security Administration denied Bigby's claims initially and on reconsideration. Id. Bigby requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Harold Chambers held a hearing on July 10, 2014. Tr. 32-69. The ALJ issued a decision on December 3, 2014, finding that Bigby was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Tr. 15-31. Bigby requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council declined Bigby's request, Tr. 1-6, rendering the ALJ's decision the final action of the Commissioner.

         On March 18, 2016, Bigby filed this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. The magistrate judge issued the R&R on February 3, 2017, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. Bigby filed objections to the R&R on February 17, 2017, and the Commissioner responded to Bigby's objections on March 3, 2017. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         B. Medical History

         Because Bigby's medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Bigby was born on April 29, 1968 and was 43 years old on the alleged onset date. Tr. 286. She communicates in English and has a high school education. Tr. 286.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ employed the statutorily required five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Bigby had been under a disability since the alleged onset date. The ALJ first determined that Bigby had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ found that Bigby suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative joint disease with on-going knee pain and knee surgeries, sciata with chronic low back pain, headaches, and depression. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Bigby's impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). Tr. 21-22. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Bigby had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “lift up to ten pounds on an occasional basis, lift and carry less than ten pounds on a frequent basis” and that Bigby could never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and should avoid even moderate exposure to workplace hazards. Tr. 22. Additionally, the ALJ determined that Bigby could perform “simple, routine, repetitive tasks.” Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Bigby was unable to perform her past relevant work, but based on her age, education, and RFC, Bigby could perform certain jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 25. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Bigby 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 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         III. ...

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