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Barnes v. Berryhill

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

January 8, 2018

ALLISON WHITNEY BARNES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS

          MARY GEIGER LEWIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). The parties are represented by excellent counsel. The matter is before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting Defendant's final decision denying Plaintiffs claims be affirmed.

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific obj ection is made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on December 1, 2017, Plaintiff filed her objections on December 21, 2017, and Defendant filed her reply on January 4, 2018. The Court has reviewed Plaintiffs objections, but holds them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB May 20, 2013, and her application for SSI on December 1, 2013. She contends her disability commenced on April 30, 2012. Defendant denied Plaintiffs application initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which the ALJ conducted on February 6, 2015. On Marchl7, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision holding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff s request for review of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff then filed an action for judicial review with this Court.

         The Agency has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a medically determinable severe impairments); (3) whether such impairments) meets or equals an impairment set forth in the Listings; (4) whether the impairments) prevents the claimant from returning to his past relevant work; and, if so, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work as it exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(I)-(v), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(I)-(v).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court is required to conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which a specific objection has been made. The Court need not conduct a de novo review, however, "when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the [Magistrate Judge's] proposed findings and recommendations." Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see Fed.R Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, the Court will address each specific objection to the Report in turn. As provided above, however, the Court need not-and will not-address any of Plaintiff s arguments that fail to point the Court to alleged specific errors the Magistrate Judge made in the Report.

         It is Plaintiffs duty both to produce evidence and prove he is disabled under the Act. See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). Nevertheless, the ALJ is to develop the record and when he "fails in his duty to fully inquire into the issues necessary for adequate development of the record, and such failure is prejudicial to the claimant, the case should be remanded." Marsh v. Harris, 632 F.2d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 1980).

         It is also the task of the ALJ, not this Court, to make findings of fact and resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). "It is not within the province of this [C]ourt to determine the weight of the evidence; nor is it [the Court's] function to substitute [its] judgmentforthat of [Defendant] if his decisionis supportedby substantial evidence." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In other words, the Court "must sustain the ALJ's decision, even if [it] disagree[s] with it, provided the determination is supported by substantial evidence." Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996). Under the substantial evidence standard, the Court must view the entire record as a whole. See Steurer v. Bowen, Sl5V.2d, 1249, 1250 (8th Cir. 1987).

         "[T]he substantial evidence standard presupposes a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration omitted).

         Plaintiff presents two specific objections to the Report. First, Plaintiff "objects to the Magistrate [Judge]'s [suggestion] the ALJ did not err in dismissing the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Christopher Wimberly." Objections 1. The Court is unpersuaded.

         Plaintiff states, "the ALJ did not claim that Dr. Wimberly's opinions were inaccurate, not credible, or not consistent with the record. He simply asserted that he had sufficiently considered Dr. Wimberly's opinions and that his [residual functional capacity (RFC)] that [Plaintiff] could perform low stress work, with some additional limitations, was consistent with those opinions." Id. at 3. According to Plaintiff, "[t]his is not a correct interpretation of Dr. Wimberly's opinions; nor does the RFC adequately deal with [Plaintiffs] limitations." Idat 3-4.

         It is beyond dispute Dr. Wimberly is Plaintiffs treating physician. According to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2) & 416.927(d)(2), a treating source's opinion on issues of the nature and severity of the impairments will be given controlling weight when well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and when the opinion is consistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. Conversely, however, it follows "if a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Craig v, Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996). The more consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, the more weight the ALJ will give to it. See 20 C.F.R§ 404.1527(d)(4) (1998).

         Plaintiff notes in her objections at least four times when Dr. Wimberly suggests she is a candidate for disability benefits: "he recommended she apply for disability[, ]" id. at 3, "he advised her to continue with the disability process[, ]" id., "[h]e repeated this advice[, ]" id., and "Dr. Wimberly yet again opined that [Plaintiff] had ...


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