Laws v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
ORDER RULING ON 20 REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION: It is hereby ORDERED that the Magistrate Judge's Report (ECF No. 20) is adopted and specifically incorporated herein; Plaintiff's objections [ECF No. 26] are overruled; and the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed. Signed by Honorable Bruce Howe Hendricks on 6/13/2017. (gnan )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
Mark Allen Laws,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 5:16-cv-00749-BHH
This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) seeking judicial review of
the Acting Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) final decision, which denied
Plaintiff Mark A. Laws’ (“Plaintiff”) claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant
to the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The record includes the report and recommendation
(“Report”) of the United States Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West, which was made in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(a) (D.S.C.).
In her Report, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the
Commissioner’s final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the
Report, and the Commissioner filed a response to those objections. See 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1) (providing that a party may object, in writing, to a Magistrate Judge’s Report
within fourteen days after being served a copy). For the reasons stated below, the Court
adopts the Magistrate Judge’s Report and affirms the Commissioner’s final decision.
On July 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed for DIB and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”),
alleging a disability onset date of November 1, 2009. Both of Plaintiff’s applications were
denied initially and on reconsideration.
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which occurred on July 17, 2015. After hearing Plaintiff’s
testimony and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s
application for DIB in a decision dated August 17, 2015.1 Plaintiff requested review of the
ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request on
January 4, 2016, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision for purposes
of judicial review.
Plaintiff was born on April 8, 1968, and was 41 years old as of his alleged onset date
of disability, November 1, 2009. Plaintiff completed high school and has past relevant work
experience as a director of training and development, a service manager, and a human
resources manager. In his form Disability Report-Adult, Plaintiff indicated that he stopped
working on November 1, 2009, to care for his ill mother. He also indicated that his
conditions of Stage III colon cancer, HIV, diverticulitis, and high blood pressure limited his
ability to work.2
STANDARDS OF REVIEW
The Magistrate Judge’s Report
The Court conducts a de novo review to those portions of the Report to which a
specific objection is made, and this Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part,
the recommendations contained in the Report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Any written
In denying Plaintiff’s DIB claim, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as of December 31,
2012, the date he was last insured. However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled beginning on
December 12, 2013, and granted Plaintiff’s SSI claim. Plaintiff does not appeal the ALJ’s grant of his SSI
The Court incorporates by specific reference the Magistrate Judge’s thorough summary of the
medical evidence of record.
objection must specifically identify the portion of the Report to which the objection is made
and the basis for the objection. Id.
Judicial Review of a Final Decision
The federal judiciary plays a limited role in the administrative scheme as established
by the Social Security Act. Section 205(g) of the Act provides that “[t]he 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). “Consequently, judicial review . . . of a final
decision regarding disability benefits is limited to determining whether the findings are
supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Walls v.
Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence” is 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 a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is
Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebreeze, 368
F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). In assessing whether substantial evidence exists, the
reviewing court should not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of” the agency. Mastro v. Apfel, 270
F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (alteration in original).
The Commissioner’s Final Decision
The Commissioner is charged with determining the existence of a disability. The
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301-1399, defines “disability” as the “inability to engage
in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be
expected to result in death or which has lasted or can expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). This determination
involves the following five-step inquiry:
[The first step is] whether the claimant engaged in substantial gainful
employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If not, the analysis continues to
determine whether, based upon the medical evidence, the claimant has a
severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) If the claimed impairment is
sufficiently severe, the third step considers whether the claimant has an
impairment that equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments
listed in Appendix I of the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, subpart P, App. I. If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, the next
inquiry considers if the impairment prevents the claimant from returning to
past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) If the answer
is in the affirmative, the final consideration looks to whether the impairment
precludes that claimant from performing other work.
Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).
If the claimant fails to establish any of the first four steps, review does not proceed
to the next step. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1993). The burden of
production and proof remains with the claimant through the fourth step. However, if the
claimant successfully reaches step five, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
provide evidence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant
could perform, taking into account the claimant’s medical condition, functional limitations,
education, age, and work experience. Walls, 296 F.3d at 290.
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that since the
alleged onset date of disability, November 1, 2009, Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: HIV infection, diverticulitis, diverticulosis, and degenerative disc disease. The
ALJ also found that since the established onset date of disability, December 12, 2013,
Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: HIV infection, diverticulitis, diverticulosis, and
major depressive disorder. Next, at step three, the ALJ determined that since the alleged
onset date of disability, November 1, 2009, Plaintiff had not had an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). At step four, the ALJ determined
that prior to December 12, 2013, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the
following exceptions: Plaintiff could frequently climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch,
and crawl, but Plaintiff could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, balance for safety on
dangerous surfaces, or work around hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous
machinery and parts. The ALJ found that as of December 12, 2013, Plaintiff had the RFC
to perform light work with the above-mentioned exceptions and the additional exceptions
that Plaintiff is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple routines and
repetitive tasks and that Plaintiff is unable to maintain persistence and pace on work tasks
for at least two hours at a time due to pain. Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff was
capable of performing his past relevant work prior to December 12, 2013, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to December 12, 2013. However, the ALJ found that
as of December 12, 2013, Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work and that there
were no jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff became disabled as of December 12, 2013.3
The Parties’ Briefs
On December 12, 2016, Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the
Commissioner’s final decision. In his brief, Plaintiff argues that: (1) substantial evidence
does not support the ALJ’s decision, and (2) the ALJ failed to perform the requisite
function-by-function analysis when assessing Plaintiff’s RFC. The Commissioner filed a
brief in support of the Commissioner’s final decision asserting that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s finding of non-disability.
The Magistrate Judge’s Report
In her Report, the Magistrate Judge rejected both of Plaintiff’s conclusory arguments
and recommended that this Court affirm the Commissioner’s final decision. With respect
to Plaintiff’s first argument, the Magistrate Judge noted that Plaintiff’s arguments indicate
a challenge to the sufficiency of the ALJ’s RFC analysis. After reviewing the ALJ’s decision
and the medical evidence of record, however, the Magistrate Judge determined that the
ALJ “clearly described Plaintiff’s symptoms and impairments, both as testified to by Plaintiff
and as described in the medical records and discussed their impact on Plaintiff’s daily
activities and his occupational functioning.”
(ECF No. 20 at 20.)
Magistrate Judge rejected Plaintiff’s first argument that the ALJ’s decision was not
supported by substantial evidence.
Likewise, with respect to Plaintiff’s second argument, the Magistrate Judge also
rejected Plaintiff’s assertion that the ALJ failed to conduct a proper function-by-function
As previously noted, Plaintiff does not appeal this portion of the ALJ’s decision. Rather, Plaintiff
appeals only the denial of his claim for DIB prior to December 12, 2013.
analysis in finding Plaintiff’s RFC, noting that “Plaintiff does not identify specific limitations
that the ALJ allegedly did not consider nor does Plaintiff expand on his statement that the
analysis was not used.” (Id. at 21.) The Magistrate Judge determined that Plaintiff’s
argument was without merit because the record indicates that the ALJ considered the
relevant medical evidence–including Plaintiff’s allegations, his treatment history and
medication, the clinical findings, and the opinion evidence–and properly considered the
extent to which Plaintiff’s impairments limited his work-related functioning prior to his date
Plaintiff’s Objections and the Court’s Analysis
In his objections, Plaintiff simply recites the same arguments he raised in his briefs.
Plaintiff again asserts that “[s]ubstantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s rejection of
the evidence regarding Mr. Laws’ multiple impairments including diverticulitis flares and
depression,” and that “Mr. Laws’ complaints to his medical providers during the time period
prior to [ ] December 31, 2012 are consistent throughout the medical records.” (ECF No.
26 at 3.)
After review, the Court finds that the Magistrate Judge appropriately rejected
Plaintiff’s conclusory arguments. The Magistrate Judge thoroughly outlined the ALJ’s
discussion of Plaintiff’s diverticulitis and depression, and the Court ultimately agrees with
the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ's RFC analysis complies with Social Security Ruling
96-8p, which requires an ALJ's RFC assessment to include a narrative discussion
describing and citing the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions.
Importantly, nowhere in Plaintiff’s objections does Plaintiff point to any legal or
factual error in the Magistrate Judge’s Report.
After consideration, the Court finds
Plaintiff’s repetitive and non-specific objections without merit, and the Court agrees with the
Magistrate Judge that a review of the record–including the medical evidence and Plaintiff’s
allegations–indicates that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding of non-disability
prior to December 31. 2012.
Based on the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that the Magistrate Judge’s
Report (ECF No. 20) is adopted and specifically incorporated herein; Plaintiff’s objections
(ECF No. 26) are overruled; and the Commissioner’s final decision is affirmed.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/Bruce Howe Hendricks
United States District Judge
June 13, 2017
Charleston, South Carolina
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