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Mabry v. Berryhill

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

July 18, 2018

Robert Cleveland Mabry, Jr. Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          A. MARVIN QUATTLEBAUM, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a Social Security appeal brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) in which Plaintiff Robert Cleveland Mabry, Jr. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 DSC, this matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for pre-trial handling. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) on March 27, 2018, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (ECF No. 17). Plaintiff filed objections to the Report on April 10, 2018 (ECF No. 21), and the Commissioner filed her reply on April 19, 2018. (ECF No. 22.) The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's objection, but, in light of the record, finds them to be without merit. Therefore, the Court adopts the Report of the Magistrate Judge and affirms the decision of the Commissioner, as further explained below.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Report sets forth in detail the relevant facts and standards of law on this matter, and the Court incorporates them and summarizes below in relevant part. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits on April 7, 2015 and April 12, 2016, respectively. Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of April 1, 2015, subsequently amended to August 1, 2015. (Tr. at 21.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. (Tr. at 21.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 13, 2016. (Tr. at 21.) The ALJ heard testimony before Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert, Courtney Stiles, at a hearing on October 6, 2016. (Tr. at 21.) On November 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a ruling and found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 20-41.) The Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 4, 2017 (Tr. at 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently filed an action in this Court on May 22, 2017. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

         The Magistrate Judge recommends affirming the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 17 at 30.) The 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. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which specific objection 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 to him with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). “However, the Court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are addressed. While the level of scrutiny entailed by the Court's review of the Report thus depends on whether or not objections have been filed, in either case the Court is free, after review, to accept, reject, or modify any of the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations.” Wallace v. Housing Auth. of the City of Columbia, 791 F.Supp. 137, 138 (D.S.C. 1992) (internal citations omitted).

         In the Report, the Magistrate Judge considered Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical opinions of treating physicians Drs. Gheorghiu and Westmoreland, and in giving significant weight to the opinions of examining physician Dr. Junker and state agency reviewing physicians Drs. El-Ibiary and Lang. (ECF No. 17 at 19.) The Magistrate Judge considered the several reasons articulated by the ALJ as to why the opinions of Drs. Gheorghiu and Westmoreland could not be given controlling weight, and the ALJ's consideration of the same in light of the evidence in the record. (ECF No. 17 at 20.) The Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ gave Dr. Gheorghiu and Dr. Westmoreland's opinions proper consideration and weight based on the entire record, and so recommended to this Court. (ECF No. 17 at 26, 28.) The Magistrate Judge also considered the weight given by the ALJ to the opinions of Drs. El-Ibiary and Lang in light of the entire record and found the reliance on those opinions to be appropriately considered and weighed. (ECF No. 17 at 29-30.) The Magistrate Judge thus recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed, as it was based on substantial evidence and free from error. (ECF No. 17 at 30.)

         III. PARTIES' RESPONSE

         Plaintiff filed objections to the Report (“Objections”) on April 10, 2018. (ECF No. 21.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge did not properly consider Dr. Gheorghiu's opinions, the objective findings supporting his opinions, the record of Plaintiff's work history and activities in light Dr. Gheorghiu's opinion and Plaintiff's limitations Dr. Gheorghiu identified in light of the diagnostic evidence. (ECF No. 21 at 3-5.) Plaintiff also suggests that the Magistrate Judge overlooked the fact that the ALJ found Plaintiff to have severe impairments of anxiety and dysthymia. (ECF No. 21 at 3). Plaintiff claims the Magistrate Judge also ignored the fact that Dr. Gheorghiu's August 10, 2015 Physical Assessment indicated that Plaintiff had symptoms of numbness and tingling in his hands and feet as well as weakness, as those symptoms were not inconsistent with Mr. Gheorghiu's other opinions. (ECF No. 21 at 2.) Plaintiff also objects to the Magistrate Judge's discounting of Dr. Gheorghiu's opinion concerning Plaintiff's depression. (ECF No. 21 at 3-4.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge failed to recognize the import of the ALJ's error concerning the definition of “sedentary work” applied by Dr. Gheorghiu in that the ALJ specifically indicated that a purported difference in definitions was one reason he rejected Dr. Gheorghiu's opinions. (ECF No. 21 at 6.) Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ's errors regarding Dr. Gheorghiu's opinions apply equally to Dr. Westmoreland's opinions. (ECF No. 21 at 7.) In sum, Plaintiff states that both the treating specialist and primary provider gave consistent opinions supporting disability and that remand is required to allow for a proper evaluation of the opinion evidence in this case. (ECF No. 21 at 8.)

         The Commissioner filed a reply to Plaintiff's objections to the Report asking this Court to affirm the final administrative decision by adopting the Report. (ECF No. 22.) The Commissioner argues that the Magistrate Judge correctly found that the ALJ provided ample, well-supported reasons for finding that controlling weight could not be given to the opinions of Drs. Gheorghiu and Westmoreland.

         IV. DISCUSSION OF THE LAW

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the Social Security Act is a limited one. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may only review whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .”); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964); see, e.g., Daniel v. Gardner, 404 F.2d 889 (4th Cir. 1968); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). This standard precludes de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court's findings of fact for those of the Commissioner. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th Cir. 1971). Accordingly, “the court [must] uphold the [Commissioner's] decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         Although the federal court's review role is a limited one, “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). Further, the Commissioner's findings of fact are not binding if they were based upon the application of an improper standard or misapplication of the law. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 519 (4th Cir. 1987). “[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. In order for a reviewing court to determine whether the Commissioner based a decision ...


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