United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
AKIA WILLIAMSON, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Mamie Lee Burnett, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND
REVERSING AND REMANDING THE MATTER FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE
GEIGER LEWIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff Akia Williamson
(Williamson), as Personal Representative of the Estate of
Mamie Lee Burnett (Burnett), seeks judicial review of the
final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (Berryhill)
denying Burnett's claims for disability insurance
benefits (DIB). 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 to the Court Berryhill's
decision be reversed and remanded for further administrative
action consistent with the Report. The Report was made in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule
73.02 for the District of South Carolina.
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 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 with instructions. 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1). 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 Berryhill's arguments
that fail to point the Court to alleged specific errors the
Magistrate Judge made in the Report.
Magistrate Judge filed the Report on April 9, 2019. Berryhill
filed her sole objection on April 22, 2019. The Court has
carefully reviewed Berryhill's objection but holds it to
be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment
field her application for DIB in December 2013, asserting her
disability commenced on June 6, 2013. Burnett's
application was denied initially on July 29, 2014. On March
31, 2015, upon reconsideration, the Social Security
Administration (Administration) determined that Burnett was
disabled. The Administration determined the onset date to be
January 17, 2015, but held Burnett was not disabled before
that date. Burnett appealed the denial of her claim for the
period of June 6, 2013 through January 16, 2015, the relevant
period at issue. The administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted
a hearing on Burnett's appeal on March 21, 2017.
14, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision holding
Burnett not disabled under the Social Security Act (the Act)
during the relevant period. The Appeals Council denied
Burnett's request for review of the ALJ's decision.
Burnett then filed this action seeking judicial review of the
ALJ's decision. After this action was filed, Burnett
passed away on February 4, 2019, and Williamson, as the
personal representative for Burnett's estate, was
substituted as the plaintiff.
Social Security Administration has established a five-step
sequential evaluation process for determining whether 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
impairment(s); (3) whether such impairment(s) meets or equals
an impairment set forth in the Listings; (4) whether the
impairment(s) 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. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v),
416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). If a decision as to disability can be
made at any step, the analysis ends there without proceeding
to the next step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4),
Plaintiff's duty both to produce evidence and to prove
she is disabled under the Act. See Pass v. Chater,
65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). And, it is the duty of
the ALJ, not this Court, “to make findings of fact and
to 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] judgment for that of [the defendant] if
[the] decision is supported by 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,
however, the Court must view the entire record as a whole.
See Steurer v. Bowen, 815 F.2d, 1249, 1250 (8th Cir.
the 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). Put
differently, if the ALJ's “dispositive factual
findings are supported by substantial evidence, they must be
affirmed, even in cases where contrary findings of an ALJ
might also be so supported.” Kellough v.
Heckler, 785 F.2d 1147, 1149 (4th Cir. 1986).
Berryhills's objection, she argues the Magistrate Judge
erred in finding the ALJ failed to support her decision by
substantial evidence. Objection 1. Specifically, Berryhill
contends the ALJ weighed the opinion of Burnett's
treating physician Dr. Krista Kozacki “within the
parameters of her discretion.” Id. at 7.
According to Berryhill, the ALJ “at least marshaled
substantial evidence to support her determination not to
accord more than little weight to the opinions at
issue.” Id. at 4. The Court disagrees.
“must consider all the evidence and explain on the
record the reasons for [her] findings, including the reason
for rejecting relevant evidence in support of the
claim.” King v. Califano, 615 F.2d 1018, 1020
(4th Cir. 1980). “Even if legitimate reasons exist for
rejecting or discounting certain evidence, [the ALJ] cannot
do so for no reason or for the wrong reasons.”
Id. Further, the Court “cannot determine if
findings are unsupported by substantial evidence unless [the
ALJ] explicitly indicates the weight given to all of the
relevant evidence.” Gordon v. Schweiker, 725
F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984).
[the ALJ] has analyzed all of the evidence and has
sufficiently explained the weight [she] has given to
obviously probative exhibits, to say that [her] decision is
supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of
the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine whether the conclusions reached are
rational.” Arnold v. Sec'y of Health, Educ.
& Welfare, 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977)
(citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Nevertheless, the duty of explanation is satisfied
“[i]f a reviewing court can discern what the ALJ did
and why he did it.” Piney Mountain Coal Co. v.
Mays, 176 F.3d 753, 762 n.10 (4th Cir. 1999) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
reviewed the record under the standard set forth above, the
Court is unable to say it can discern what the ALJ did and
why she did it. As the Magistrate Judge notes, “[t]he
ALJ failed to build a logical bridge between the evidence of
record and her conclusion that [Burnett] could perform light
work and persist for [eight] hours a day, [five] days a
week.” Report 38. This gap in the ALJ's reasoning
is particularly troubling considering her decision to give
Dr. Kozacki's opinion little weight.
choosing to give Dr. Kozacki's opinion little weight, the
ALJ stated her reliance on the “longitudinal record . .
. [and] specifically pointed to what she identified as
inconsistencies between” Dr. Kozacki's opinion and
the treatment notes of both herself and Dr. Rajesh Bajaj.
Objection 2. The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge the
ALJ failed to provide sufficient explanation to support this
conclusory finding. Report 37; see also Dunn v.
Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 267 (4th Cir. 2015)
(“An ALJ's determination as to the weight to be
assigned to a medical opinion” may be disturbed if
there is “some indication that the ALJ has ...