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Rice-Williford v. Saul

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

August 26, 2019

Deborah Rice-Williford, Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Deborah Rice-Williford (“Rice-Williford”), brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)[1], denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a), D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Before this court is the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”), recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 18).[2] Rice-Williford has filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 21), and the Commissioner has responded to those objections (ECF No. 24). Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         On December 2, 2011, Rice-Williford applied for DIB, alleging that she has been unable to work since December 2, 2005. (ECF No. 10-5 at 16-17). Her claim was denied initially on February 23, 2012, and upon reconsideration on April 24, 2012. (ECF. No. 10-11 at 5). On July 15, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing and received testimony from Rice-Williford and vocational expert Benson Hecker, Ph.D. Id. On November 12, 2013, the ALJ denied Rice-Williford's claim for benefits. Id. at 13. In her decision, the ALJ found that Rice-Williford suffered from the following severe impairments through March 31, 2011, the date last insured: interstitial cystitis, cervical spine degenerative disc disease, residuals of right rotator cuff tear, right shoulder degenerative joint disease, and idiopathic hypersomnia. Id. at 7. The ALJ then determined that Rice-Williford had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work and that she was “frequently able to bilaterally handle/finger, and is occasionally able to reach overhead with her dominant right hand.” Id. at 8. The ALJ determined that Rice-Williford was unable to use ladders or expose herself to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights. Id. In explaining the RFC assessment, the ALJ gave “some weight” to the opinion evidence of Dr. Carl Anderson, a consulting doctor who opined in February 2009 that Rice-Williford was able to perform medium work with limitations as to climbing ladders and restrictions as to exposure to hazards. Id. at 11. There was no opinion evidence from any treating physicians in the record. Id. at 35-36. Finally, based on Rice-Williford's age, education, work experience, RFC, as well as the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Rice-Williford could have performed. Id. at 11-12. Accordingly, the ALJ ruled that Rice-Williford was not disabled within the meaning of the SSA between December 5, 2005, the alleged onset date, and March 31, 2011, the date last insured. Id. at 12-13.

         Rice-Williford subsequently sought review by the Appeals Council, (ECF No. 10-2 at 15), and she submitted new opinion evidence from Dr. Robert LeBlond, id. at 6, one of her prior treating physicians. Dr. LeBlond signed a statement dated May 7, 2014, that was prepared by counsel for Rice-Williford and provided that LeBlond had treated Rice-Williford for “the past 14 years” for “neck, upper back, and shoulder pain.” (ECF No. 10-9 at 62). He noted that these complaints were consistent with a 2006 MRI, which confirmed herniated discs in her cervical spine, and a 2005 MRI, which showed a rotator cuff tear in her right shoulder. Id. Dr. LeBlond's statement noted that “[o]ver the years, her condition has observably deteriorated” and that “medications and trigger point injections . . . have provided her with some minimal relief.” Id. Dr. LeBlond further indicated that if Rice-Williford “attempted to work a whole 8 hour workday she would probably need to rest away from the work station quite often due to her increasing pain” and that she probably “would not be able to use her arms any more than occasionally” as such use would aggravate her neck pain so much that she would be unable to keep up with “even simple tasks.” Id. Dr. LeBlond believed Rice-Williford “had these limitations at least since 2011” and stated that he felt “like she was limited to this extent well before that.” Id. Finally, after noting that she also has a rheumatologic condition that would further contribute to her work limitations, Dr. LeBlond asserted that Rice-Williford “would not be able to perform any full time work.” Id. Although it considered the statement of Dr. LeBlond as well as other new information, the Appeals Council denied Rice-Williford's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6.

         On January 23, 2015, Rice-Williford filed an action seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. See Rice-Williford v. Colvin, 4:15-cv-00317 (D.S.C.) (“Rice-Williford I”) at Dkt. No. 1. On February 1, 2016, the court adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for consideration of new opinion evidence from Dr. LeBlond. (ECF No. 10-11 at 41-42); see Rice-Williford I at Dkt. No. 17.

         On June 29, 2016, the ALJ conducted another hearing at which Rice-Williford, who was represented by counsel, and Dr. Hecker testified. (ECF No. 10-10 at 34-64). On August 30, 2016, after considering the May 7, 2014, medical statement of Dr. LeBlond in addition to the previously-considered record, the ALJ issued a decision finding Rice-Williford was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 13. The ALJ found that Rice-Williford had the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, residuals of right rotator cuff tear, right shoulder degenerative joint disease, polyarthritis, right elbow neuropathy, interstitial cystitis, and idiopathic hypersomnia.” Id. at 15.

         With respect to Rice-Williford's RFC, the ALJ determined that she could perform light work “except she can never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds or be exposed to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights.” Id. at 18. The ALJ further noted that Rice-Williford “is frequently able to bilaterally handle/finger and is occasionally able to reach overhead with her dominant right hand.” Id. The ALJ explained that she gave “full consideration to the medical statement of Dr. LeBlond, dated May 7, 2014, ” but did not “give[] this opinion controlling weight even though Dr. LeBlond is a treating physician, because [she did] not find it to be adequately supported by his clinical findings of record or the other substantial and credible evidence of record.” Id. at 23. The ALJ listed several specific reasons in support of the decision to attach “little weight” to the May 7, 2014, statement. First, the ALJ noted that from February 2011 through December 2011, Dr. LeBlond's treatment notes consistently indicated that Rice-Williford “demonstrate[d] a stable/normal neurological exam with 5/5 muscle strength, normal sensation and deep tendon reflexes, and negative straight leg raising” and that “the only abnormality noted is some muscle tension in her paraspinal, trapezius, and sacroiliac joints” and “positive impingement in right shoulder ‘with mild pain with facet loading.'” Id. Further, Dr. LeBlond's notes reflected that “in May 2011, two-months after her DLI, while claimant reported increased pain, . . . she exhibited no changes in strength and sensation and reported that her pain level was only a 3 with medication.” Id. Second, the ALJ observed that Dr. LeBlond's May 7, 2014, opinion “use[d] vague, imprecise terms such as ‘probable, probably, and tend, '” and was “devoid of function by function analysis or specific functional restrictions.” Id. Third, the ALJ found that Dr. LeBlond's statement that “if she attempted to work a whole 8-hour workday she would ‘probably' need to rest away from the work station ‘quite often' due to her increasing pain” was not consistent with his treatment records “that consistently note that pain level is only a level 3-5 with pain medication and pain is ‘well controlled' with Lortab with no side-effects.” Id. Finally, the ALJ observed that Dr. LeBlond believed Rice-Williford “will likely always have some active pain which will have exacerbations periodically, but . . . that she is functioning well despite the pain.”

         As to Rice-Williford's past relevant work, the ALJ noted that Rice-Williford worked as a telephone collections agent and manager for a financial institution from January 1998 through December 2005. Id. at 25. Based on the testimony of both Rice-Williford and Dr. Hecker, the vocational expert, the ALJ found that a “collections agent/telephone solicitor” job is “sedentary in exertion” and requires the worker to “sit all day and use the telephone to call individuals to collect money.” Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that, “[i]n light of Dr. Hecker's testimony and in comparing the claimant's residual functional capacity with the physical and mental demands of this work, I find that the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work as a collections/telephone solicitor as actually performed” and “was not under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, at any time from December 2, 2005, the alleged onset date, through March 31, 2011, the date last insured.” Id.

         Once again, the Appeals Council denied Rice-Williford's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 2. On February 8, 2018, Rice-Williford filed the present action seeking review of the ALJ's August 30, 2016, decision denying her application for DIB. (ECF No. 1). On May 28, 2019, the magistrate judge issued the Report recommending that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 18). As noted previously, Rice-Williford filed objections to the Report (ECF No. 21), and the Commissioner responded to those objections (ECF No. 24).

         II. Standard of Review

         The federal judiciary has a limited role in the administrative scheme established by the SSA. Section 405(g) of the Act provides, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ..” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence has been defined . . . as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 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). Thus, in its review, the court may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         However, “[f]rom this it does not follow . . . 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 agency.” Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d 278, 279 (4th Cir. 1969). Rather, “the 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 this conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 1157-58.

         III. ...


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