Wyche v. Astrue
ORDER denying 28 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; granting 29 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; and 32 Memorandum and Recommendation - Signed by District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan on 03/28/2014. (Baker, C.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
MARY W. WYCHE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter comes before the court on the parties’ cross motions for judgment on the
pleadings (DE 28, 29).1 Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates issued a memorandum and recommendation
(“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff’s motion, grant defendant’s
motion, and that the final decision by defendant be affirmed. Plaintiff timely filed an objection to
the M&R and the response time has expired. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling.
For the reasons that follow, the court adopts the recommendation of the magistrate judge.
Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income
on February 24, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 15, 2010. The applications were
denied initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held on July 6, 2011, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who determined that plaintiff was not disabled during the
Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d), Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, has been named as
defendant in this case in place of former Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.
relevant time period in a decision dated August 25, 2011. The appeals council denied plaintiff’s
request for review on August 13, 2012, and plaintiff filed the instant action on October 12, 2012.
Standard of Review
The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner’s final
decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if they are
supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal
standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is . . . such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by “more
than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d
640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).
To assist it in its review of the Commissioner’s denial of benefits, the court may “designate
a magistrate judge to conduct hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and
recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations,
and the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified
proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does
not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do
not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate’s proposed findings and recommendations.”
Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir.1982). Absent a specific and timely filed objection,
the court reviews only for “clear error,” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R.
Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718
F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
The ALJ’s determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step
sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a
medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the
claimant’s medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the
impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform [his] past
relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The
burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the
Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ
found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 15, 2010, the date
of her alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: a depressive disorder, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus,
hypertension, and obesity.
However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that these
impairments were not severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations.
Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period plaintiff
had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, limited to simple, routine,
repetitive tasks in a low stress environment, but with capability of frequent contact with the public.
In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff’s statements about her limitations not fully
credible. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant
work. At step five, upon considering testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined
that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff is
capable of performing.
In her objection, plaintiff does not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate judge’s
M&R. Rather, she presents arguments criticizing the analysis of the ALJ, which arguments track
those raised already in her motion for judgment on the pleadings. Indeed, apart from stating
generally that she objects to the M&R on the basis of such arguments, she does not mention or
reference a single portion of the M&R. In effect, plaintiff suggests that “any issue before the
magistrate would be a proper subject of judicial review,” but “[t]he Magistrates Act does not
contemplate such an obviously inefficient use of judicial resources.” Diamond, 416 F.3d at 315-16.
Accordingly, the court need not perform a de novo review of the arguments raised. See id.
Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, undertaking de novo review of the M&R as
a whole, and upon careful review of the record and applicable law, the court finds that plaintiff’s
arguments in support her motion for judgment on the pleadings are without merit. Where these
arguments are addressed cogently in the M&R, the court adopts and incorporates the M&R herein.
In addition, the court notes the following points pertaining to the arguments raised.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence
in the record. She points to aspects of the testimony and medical records that the ALJ considered
in his decision, which plaintiff claims support a finding of disability. The court may not, however,
“undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its]
judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir.2001)
(quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589). “Ultimately, it is the duty of the administrative law judge reviewing
the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in
the evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.1990).
Here, while medical reports in the record documented plaintiff’s impairments, including
depression, hypertension, and back condition, as highlighted in plaintiff’s motion, substantial
evidence in the record supported the ALJ’s determination that these impairments did not render
plaintiff unable to work on a sustained basis. See Aytch v. Astrue, 686 F. Supp. 2d 590, 599
(E.D.N.C. 2010) (stating that a claimant bears the “burden of furnishing evidence supporting the
existence of a condition and the effect of that condition on the claimant’s ability to work on a
sustained basis”). Indeed, as noted by the ALJ, none of the claimant’s physicians reported that the
claimant is disabled and/or unable to work. Rather, the reports and records from plaintiff’s
physicians provide clinical evidence that plaintiff was “physically and/or mentally stable and able
to function.” (Tr. 17; see Tr. 295-297, 335, 338, 359-60, 370, 373).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ ignored certain evidence in the record. For example, she
contends that “the ALJ totally ignored the records from Halifax Medical Specialist, P.A. and Dr.
Maradiaga.” (Obj. at 7) (citing Tr. 315, 320, 327, 332, 351). As a general rule, “remand is
appropriate where an ALJ fails to discuss relevant evidence that weighs against his decision.” Ivey
v. Barnhart, 393 F. Supp. 2d 387, 390 (E.D.N.C. 2005). In this case, however, the ALJ did not, as
plaintiff contends, ignore the records from Halifax Medical Specialist, P.A. and Dr. Maradiaga. To
the contrary, the ALJ discussed the cited records as follows:
Although the claimant received treatment from Halifax Medical Specialists for HTN,
type II DM, pain, OA and/or depression, from 2007 to 2010, longitudinal records of
physical examinations of the claimant revealed intact neurological functions and/or
negative straight leg raises with no signs of physical deformities, acute distress or
extremity edema. These objective findings indicated that the claimant was
physically stable and able to function. In addition, evaluations of the claimant’s
psychiatric/mental functioning were also unremarkable, which evidenced that the
claimant was also mentally stable. Furthermore, the claimant was strongly advised
to watch her diet; which suggested that the claimant’s medical condition (HTN and
DM) would improve if the claimant complied with diet recommendations.
(Tr. 16 (citing Tr. 299-357)).
While plaintiff notes references in these records to plaintiff’s
hypertension as “uncontrolled,” none of these references were accompanied by any evidence of “the
effect of that condition on the claimant’s ability to work on a sustained basis.” Aytch, 686 F. Supp.
2d at 599. Nor do they provide evidence of plaintiff’s compliance with her physician’s diet
recommendations (e.g., Tr., 304, 306, 311, 315, 320). Cf. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1530 (“In order to get
benefits, [claimant] must follow treatment prescribed by [claimant’s] physician if this treatment can
restore [claimant’s] ability to work.”).
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ did not adequately consider a report of her treating
psychiatrist, Dr. Mamedi, diagnosing plaintiff with “Major depression, recurrent, single episode
severe with psychotic features.” (Tr. 296). The ALJ, however, expressly recognized that plaintiff
received treatment from Dr. Mamedi in 2009 for a “recurrent major depressive disorder,” but noted
that clinical records and testing “indicated moderate symptoms/difficulties,” and that she was taking
medication for her condition from 2007 to 2010. (Tr. 12). The ALJ also noted that during this time
plaintiff’s treating physician records demonstrated that plaintiff’s psychiatric/mental functioning
were unremarkable, and the ALJ discussed additional mental examinations in the record evidencing
only mild to moderate symptoms demonstrating ability to perform simple routine work. (Tr. 16-17).
In this manner, the ALJ sufficiently explained his decision to enable meaningful review. And, the
record includes substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s determination as to plaintiff’s
mental functional capacity (e.g., Tr. 295-297, 335, 359, 370).
Plaintiff contends, in addition, that the ALJ did not sufficiently credit her allegations of pain
and other debilitating symptoms, including through her testimony at hearing. Again, however, the
ALJ discussed plaintiff’s testimony in his decision, as well as the medical evidence in the record
demonstrating that plaintiff was able to function despite her impairments. (Tr. 15). Where this
determination was supported by substantial evidence, including reports of plaintiff’s treating
physician, and additional examination reports in the record, (e.g., Tr. 338, 359-60, 373), the court
does not undertake to re-weigh the evidence upon review. Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176.
Based on the foregoing, upon de novo review of the M&R, and upon considered review of
the record, the court ADOPTS the recommendation of the magistrate judge, DENIES plaintiff’s
motion for judgment on the pleadings (DE 28), GRANTS defendant’s motion for judgment on the
pleadings (DE 29), and AFFIRMS the final decision by defendant. The clerk is directed to close this
SO ORDERED, this the 28th day of March, 2014.
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN
United States District Judge
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