Eustace v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER adopting 22 Report and Recommendation. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Signed by Honorable Bruce Howe Hendricks on 3/27/2017.(abuc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
John C. Eustace,
) Civil Action No.: 8:15-cv-1766-BHH
OPINION AND ORDER
Nancy A. Berryhill, Commissioner of
Plaintiff John C. Eustace (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, Commissioner of
Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. In accordance with 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rules 73.02(B)(2)(a) and 83.VII.02, D.S.C., this matter was
referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin for pretrial handling. On
January 4, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation
(“Report”) in which she determined that Plaintiff did not show that the Commissioner’s
decision was unsupported by substantial evidence or reached through application of an
incorrect legal standard. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the
Commissioner’s decision. (ECF No. 22.) Plaintiff filed Objections on January 18, 2017.
(ECF No. 23.) For the reasons stated below, the Court adopts the Report and affirms
the Commissioner’s decision.
Nancy A. Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nancy A. Berryhill should be substituted for Acting Commissioner
Carolyn W. Colvin as the defendant in this suit. No further action needs to be taken to continue this suit
by reason of the last sentence of section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The Report and Recommendation sets forth in detail the relevant facts and
standards of law on this matter, and the Court incorporates them and summarizes
below in relevant part. Plaintiff, as a minor child, was found to be eligible for SSI
benefits by Order dated September 6, 2002, due to depression and attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder. (Tr. 48.) Plaintiff attained the age of 18 on September 30, 2010,
and his claim was reevaluated as a childhood age 18 redetermination pursuant to
sections 211 and 212 of Public Law 104-193. Plaintiff alleges continuing disability
beyond the age of 18 due to major depressive disorder and attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder. (ECF No. 18 at 2.) On the redetermination, it was determined that
Plaintiff’s condition had improved and he no longer had marked and/or severe functional
limitations. (Tr. 51–54.) Consequently, disability was found to have ceased on May 3,
2011, and eligibility for benefits was terminated in July 2011. (Tr. 52.) A hearing was
held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who issued an unfavorable decision on
December 12, 2013, finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. The Appeals
Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision
of the Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently filed an action in this Court on April 23,
2015. (ECF No. 1.)
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
The Magistrate Judge recommends affirming the ALJ’s decision. The Magistrate
Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no
presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with
the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (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). “However, the Court is not required to review, under a de novo or
any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the Magistrate Judge as to those
portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are addressed. While
the level of scrutiny entailed by the Court’s review of the Report thus depends on
whether or not objections have been filed, in either case the Court is free, after review,
to accept, reject, or modify any of the Magistrate Judge’s findings or recommendations.”
Wallace v. Housing Auth. of the City of Columbia, 791 F. Supp. 137, 138 (D.S.C. 1992)
(internal citations omitted).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The role of the federal judiciary in the administrative scheme established by the
Social Security Act is a limited one. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court may only
review whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and
whether the correct law was applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the
Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence,
shall be conclusive . . . .”); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980).
“Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but
less than preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964);
see, e.g., Daniel v. Gardner, 404 F.2d 889 (4th Cir. 1968); Laws v. Celebrezze, 368
F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966); Tyler v. Weinberger, 409 F. Supp. 776 (E.D. Va. 1976). In
order for a reviewing court to determine whether the Commissioner based a decision on
substantial evidence, “the decision must include the reasons for the determination . . . .”
Green v. Chater, 64 F.3d 657, 1995 WL 478032, *2 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Cook v.
Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1172 (4th Cir. 1986)). The statutorily mandated standard
precludes a de novo review of the factual circumstances that substitutes the Court’s
findings for those of the Commissioner. See, e.g., Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157 (4th
Cir. 1971); Hicks v. Gardner, 393 F.2d 299 (4th Cir. 1968). Accordingly, “the court
[must] 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). As noted by Judge Sobeloff in Flack v. Cohen, 413 F.2d
278 (4th Cir. 1969), “[f]rom this it does not follow, however, 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
action.” Id. at 279. “[T]he 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 his conclusion is rational.” Vitek, 438 F.2d at 115758.
Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on January 18, 2017.
(ECF No. 23.) In his three and a half pages of objections, Plaintiff generally objects that
the Magistrate Judge applied the wrong standard of review and improperly “rubber
stamp[ed]” the ALJ’s decision. (ECF No. 23 at 1–3.) He also objects that the Magistrate
Judge referred to the ALJ as the wrong gender and misstated the gender of Plaintiff’s
romantic partner. (Id. at 2.)
Contrary to Plaintiff’s assertions, the Magistrate Judge applied the correct
standard of review—substantial evidence. (ECF No. 22 at 19–20.) As the Magistrate
Judge correctly stated, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a 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. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990);
Richardson v. Califano, 574 F.2d 802, 803 (4th Cir. 1978); Myers, 611 F.2d at 982–83.
If the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision, it is
the Court’s duty to affirm the decision.
Here, the Magistrate Judge painstakingly recounted the evidence considered by
the ALJ, both the medical records and other evidence of record. She found that the ALJ
“considered and discussed his evaluation of the medical evidence of record and clearly
explained his consideration of the same.” (ECF No. 22 at 25.) Noting that Plaintiff failed
to point to any specific evidence of record that was excluded from consideration, the
Magistrate Judge found that there was no basis to find the ALJ’s decision was not
supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 25–26.) The Court agrees with the Magistrate
Judge that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Indeed, the ALJ’s
decision is remarkably thorough and demonstrates a careful consideration and analysis
of the evidence of record. Plaintiff’s arguments to the contrary are unavailing.
For example, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ “took license with the actual evidence
and contorted it to suit preconceived conclusions.” (ECF No. 23 at 2–3.) Here, he cites
the ALJ’s finding that “the claimant participated in the school band without evidence of
difficulty dealing with others,” (Tr. 29), and claims his testimony from the ALJ hearing
contradicts this finding:
Q. You were in the band in school?
A. I was.
Q. Any problems in the band?
A. I really enjoyed it but I didn’t really keep up as well as the other people
but eventually I was able to learn a piece and play with them but I would
Plaintiff claims that his statement that he “would need help” is evidence of his
difficulty dealing with others and claims the Magistrate Judge and ALJ erred in ignoring
this testimony. (ECF No. 23 at 2.) The Court cannot see how the highlighted testimony
evidences that Plaintiff has any difficulty dealing with others; rather, as the
Commissioner contends, it only suggests “that he needed extra help to learn and play
some pieces of music, help that most likely came from engaging with others.” (ECF No.
24 at 2.) Even if another conclusion could conceivably be drawn, Plaintiff’s argument
essentially asks the Court to reweigh the evidence and come to its own conclusion.
Such reweighing of the evidence is not within the province of this court. See Johnson v.
Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (holding that a reviewing court should not
undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute
its judgment for that of the ALJ).
Plaintiff also asserts that the “medical providers findings reports are replete with
medical support documenting” Plaintiff’s impairments and disabilities. (ECF No. 23 at 3–
4.) However, he fails to point to any specific evidence here that would undermine the
ALJ’s findings and provides no support for this assertion.
As for Plaintiff’s assertion that the Magistrate Judge referred to the ALJ using the
wrong gender, the Court finds this was merely a scrivener’s error that has no bearing on
her conclusion that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. The
Magistrate Judge’s comments regarding the gender of Plaintiff’s romantic partner are
similarly unimportant. Plaintiff asserts that while the Magistrate Judge stated that
Plaintiff reported having a girlfriend, Plaintiff in fact had a boyfriend. (ECF No. 23 at 3.)
Plaintiff claims this also evidences the ALJ’s “contort[ion]” of the evidence, as he noted
“Plaintiff said he had a girlfriend and went with her to the movies once.” (Id.; Tr. 30.) As
an initial matter, the record is not as clear on the gender of Plaintiff’s significant other as
Plaintiff suggests. Plaintiff’s testimony suggests that he had a girlfriend. (Tr. 570–71.)
Plaintiff’s mother, on the other hand, stated that he had a boyfriend, not a girlfriend. (Tr.
581–82.) Regardless, Plaintiff fails to explain how the gender of Plaintiff’s romantic
partner affects the ALJ’s findings or the Magistrate Judge’s analysis.
In short, Plaintiff’s brief and conclusory objections wholly fail to establish that the
ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
The Court has carefully reviewed the record, including the findings of the ALJ
and Plaintiff’s objections to the Report and Recommendation. The Court concurs in the
recommendation of the Magistrate Judge that substantial evidence in the record
supports the decision of the Commissioner and thus adopts the Report and
Recommendation, incorporating it herein by reference to the extent it is consistent with
this order. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/Bruce Howe Hendricks
United States District Judge
March 27, 2017
Greenville, South Carolina
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