United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division
C. Coggins, Jr., United States District Judge.
brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
seeking judicial review of a final decision on the
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. In
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule
73.02(B)(2), (D.S.C.), this matter was referred to United
States Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald for pre-trial
proceedings and a Report and Recommendation
(“Report”). On November 29, 2017, the Magistrate
Judge issued a Report recommending that the
Commissioner's decision be affirmed. ECF No. 22. On
December 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed objections to the Report.
ECF No. 23. The Commissioner filed a Reply on December 27,
2017. ECF No. 25. For the reasons stated below, the Court
respectfully declines to adopt the Report and remands this
case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court.
The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the
responsibility to make a final determination remains with the
Court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976).
The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of
any portion of the Report of the Magistrate Judge 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 recommit the matter to the Magistrate
Judge with instructions. See U.S.C. § 636(b).
The Court will review the Report only for clear error in the
absence of an objection. See Diamond v. Colonial Life
& Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir.
2005) (stating that “in the absence of timely filed
objection, a district court need not conduct a de
novo review, but instead must only satisfy itself that
there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to
accept the recommendation.” (citation omitted)).
role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme
established by the Social Security Act (“the
Act”) is a limited one. Section 205(g) of the Act
provides, “[t]he findings of the Secretary as to any
fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
“Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable
times as more than a scintilla, but less than
preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebreeze, 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 was
supported by substantial evidence and reached through the
application of the correct legal standard. Johnson v.
Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). “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 an
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 his conclusion is
rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.
applied for DIB on May 6, 2013. This claim was denied
initially and upon reconsideration. On March 10, 2015,
Plaintiff applied for SSI. Both applications initially
alleged disability beginning November 23, 2009; Plaintiff
later amended her alleged onset date to July 6, 2011. On
April 13, 2015, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's
claims in a decision dated June 11, 2015, finding that
Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of
the ALJ's decision, making the determination of the ALJ
the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed this
action on November 2, 2016.
Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the
Commissioner's decision because it is supported by
substantial evidence and the proper legal standards were
applied. Plaintiff objects to the Report arguing that the
Magistrate erred in finding that the ALJ and properly
evaluated the medical opinion evidence and properly assessed
other arguments, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ impermissibly
interpreted raw medical data in his discussion of
Plaintiff's MRI results. “An ALJ cannot play the
role of doctor and interpret medical evidence when he or she
is not qualified to do so.” Murphy v. Astrue,
496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007); see also Nguyen v.
Chater, 172 F .3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (“As a
lay person . . . the ALJ was simply not qualified to
interpret raw medical data in functional terms . .
..”); Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health &
Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 17 (1st Cir. 1996) (stating
that “an ALJ, as a lay person, is not qualified to
interpret raw data in a medical record”); Ferguson
v. Schweiker, 765 F.2d 31, 37 (3d Cir. 1985) (“By
independently reviewing and interpreting the laboratory
reports, the ALJ impermissibly substituted his own judgment
for that of a physician; an ALJ is not free to set his own
expertise against that of a physician who presents competent
evidence.”); Whitney v.. Schweiker, 695 F.2d
784, 788 (7th Cir. 1982) (“Because an Administrative
Law Judge as a rule is not a doctor, he should avoid
commenting on the meaning of a test or clinical x-ray when
there has been no supporting expert testimony.”).
decision denying benefits, the ALJ summarized the results of
Plaintiff's MRI as follows,
The claimant's cervical spine showed diffuse disc
desiccation, with a right paracentral disc protrusion at
¶ 5-C6 producing mild anterior edipural mass effect on
the cervical cord (B13F/1). The claimant's lumbar spine
had no significant abnormalities at the T12-L4 levels, a mild
left lateral-based disc protrusion at ¶ 4-L5, and a
broad-based central/right paracentral substance with
enhancement compatible with surgical scarring at ¶ 5-S1
(B14F/2-3) . . . . [I]maging of the claimant's spine
shows the two disc bulges, with only mild effects, and no
additional irregularities that would affect the
claimant's abilities to such an extent that she could
only work four hours per day.
R. 18. The Magistrate concludes that the ALJ's statements
are based upon the “impressions” section of the
MRI results. ECF No. 22 at 24. As explained by the
Magistrate, at least one other Court in this District has
concluded that an ALJ did not improperly provide his own
interpretation of raw medical data when he referred to the
“impressions” sections of an MRI report and
properly weighed those objective medical findings against a
medical opinion. See Jones v. Colvin, C/A No. 9:14-
4339-TMC, 2016 WL 1054991, at *5 (D.S.C. Mar. 17, 2016).
However, it appears that this case is distinguishable from
the facts in Jones.
Jones, the ALJ discussed the plaintiff's ...