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Williams-Covington v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

July 9, 2019

Vivian Williams-Covington, Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Bristow Marchant United States Magistrate Judge

         The Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner wherein she was denied disability benefits. This case was referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a)(D.S.C.).

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and for Disabled Widow's Benefits (DWB), alleging disability beginning September 15, 2014 due to a back condition (R.pp. 16, 19, 210-213, 217, 222). Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on April 4, 2017. (R.pp. 35-60). The ALJ thereafter denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision dated August 2, 2017. (R.pp. 16-26). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the determination of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (R.pp. 1-6).

         Plaintiff then filed this action in United States District Court. Plaintiff asserts that there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, and that the decision should be reversed and remanded for further review, or for an outright award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the decision to deny benefits is supported by substantial evidence, and that Plaintiff was properly found not to be disabled.

         Scope of review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court's scope of review is limited to (1) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ultimate conclusions reached by the Commissioner are legally correct under controlling law. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 98 2-983 (4th Cir. 1980). If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, it is the court's duty to affirm the decision. Substantial evidence has been defined as:

evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.” [emphasis added].

Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966)); see also Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 806 (8th Cir. 2008)[Nothing that the substantial evidence standard is even “less demanding than the preponderance of the evidence standard”].

         The Court lacks the authority to substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. “[T]he language of [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court 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).


         The record reflects that Plaintiff, who was forty-seven (47) years old on her alleged disability onset date, has a high school education and an advanced degree in human resource development. She previously worked as a collections manager for two different companies before stopping work in 2014 following back surgery. (R.pp. 25, 39-42). In order to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must show that she has an impairment or combination of impairments which prevent her from engaging in all substantial gainful activity for which she is qualified by her age, education, experience, and functional capacity, and which has lasted or could reasonably be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.

         After a review of the evidence and testimony in the case the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff does suffer from the “severe” impairments[1] of lumbar degenerative disc disease status-post, multiple laminectomies, mild cervical spondylosis, obesity, osteoarthritis of the right knee with medial meniscal tear, and chronic left shoulder impingement, she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of sedentary work[2] with these impairments. (R.pp. 19, 21). The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff's impairments and resulting RFC did not prevent her from performing her past relevant work as a customer service supervisor, and that she was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (R.p. 25).

         Plaintiff asserts that in reaching this decision the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion of her treating neurosurgeon, Dr. Greg McLoughlin; by failing to conduct a function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff's RFC; by failing to provide any RFC limitations for Plaintiff's pain, depression, or hypersomnolence; and by failing to consider or discuss how the side effects from Plaintiff's medications affected her ability to work. However, after careful review and consideration of the evidence and arguments presented, the undersigned finds for the reasons set forth hereinbelow that there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, and that the decision should therefore be affirmed. Laws, 368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640');">368 F.2d 640 [Substantial evidence is “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion”].

         Treating Physician Opinion

         Plaintiff initially argues that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating the opinion of her treating neurosurgeon, Dr. McLoughlin. The opinion of a treating physician is ordinarily entitled to great weight; see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589-590 (4th Cir. 1996) [Noting importance of treating physician opinion]; is entitled to deference, and must be weighed using all of the factors provided for in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927. See SSR 96-2p.[3] Under these regulations, a treating source's opinion on the nature and severity of an impairment is entitled to “controlling weight” where it is supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record. Further, the ALJ is required to provide an explanation in the decision for what weight is given a treating source's opinion and, if rejected, why it was rejected. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). After careful review of the decision and the applicable medical records pursuant to these standards, the undersigned can find no reversible error in the ALJ's treatment of the medical records and opinions from Dr. McLoughlin.

         Plaintiff was initially seen by Dr. McLoughlin on August 26, 2014 for complaints of low back pain. Dr. McLoughlin noted that Plaintiff had previously had an L4-5 laminotomy performed on her back in 2003, which had initially helped her pain. However, she was at that time experiencing “severe” pain that was interfering with her quality of life. Dr. McLoughlin's records indicate that he reviewed an MRI with her, and concluded that she had marked degenerative disc disease at ¶ 4-5 with Modic changes and disc space collapse. He believed that Plaintiff was a “surgical candidate”. (R.p. 316). Dr. McLoughlin thereafter performed surgery on the Plaintiff on October 6, 2014. (R.pp. 318-320). Following this surgery, Dr. McLoughlin completed a Short Term Disability Medical Update form for the insurance company on November 23, 2014, in which he noted that Plaintiff was currently unable to work, but that she had a projected return to work date of approximately January 6, 2015. (R.p. 470). When Plaintiff returned to Dr. McLoughlin for her follow-up on December 11, 2014, he found that Plaintiff was “continuing to do well for a lumbar fusion. She is not requiring any pain medications and her x-rays look fine. We're going to discontinue her lumbar brace. I will see ...

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