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Donaldson v. Saul

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

August 28, 2019

PATRICIA DONALDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND AFFIRMING DEFENDANT SAUL'S DECISION DENYING BENEFITS

          MARY GEIGER LEWIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a Social Security appeal in which Plaintiff Patricia Donaldson (Donaldson) seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Andrew Saul denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). 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 Saul's final decision denying Donaldson's claims be affirmed.

         The 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 Magistrate Judge filed the Report on May 17, 2019, Donaldson filed her objections on May 27, 2019, and Saul filed his reply on June 10, 2019. The Court has reviewed the objections, but holds them to be without merit. It will therefore enter judgment accordingly.

         On December 26, 2013, Donaldson filed her applications for DIB and SSI. She contends her disability commenced on June 1, 2013. Saul denied Donaldson's applications initially and upon reconsideration. Donaldson then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which the ALJ conducted on November 9, 2016.

         On July 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision holding Donaldson was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Donaldson's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Donaldson then filed this action for judicial review with the Court on March 28, 2018.

         The Agency has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if 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).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court is required to conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which a specific objection has been made. 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).

         It is the plaintiff's duty both to produce evidence and prove he is disabled under the Act. See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). Nevertheless, the ALJ is to develop the record and when he “fails in his duty to fully inquire into the issues necessary for adequate development of the record, and such failure is prejudicial to the claimant, the case should be remanded.” Marsh v. Harris, 632 F.2d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 1980).

         It is also the task of the ALJ, not this Court, to make findings of fact and 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, the Court must view the entire record as a whole. See Steurer v. Bowen, 815 F.2d, 1249, 1250 (8th Cir. 1987).

         “[T]he 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).

         Donaldson lists just two specific objections to the Report. First, Donaldson states “[t]he Magistrate did not address [her] arguments about the ALJ's failure to include relevant and essential evidence in the [residual functional capacity (RFC)] analysis.” Objections 1.

         There are three sub-parts to Donaldson's first objection. In the first sub-part, she complains that, although “an MRI taken on June 25, 2014, after her surgery (which the ALJ claimed had resolved her medical problems), did indeed show improvement in the spinal stenosis seen on the prior examination. . . . the ALJ failed to note-and the Magistrate did not comment on-the additional findings in that MRI.” Objections 2. Donaldson then cites to deficits in her medical condition listed in her MRI report. Id.

         Although the ALJ must sufficiently explain the reasons for her rulings to allow this Court to provide meaningful review, Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir. 2013), “the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence[;] [instead, ] [s]he must . . . build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [her] ...


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