United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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