Lawson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER adopting 18 Report and Recommendation, affirming the Commissioner's decision. Signed by Honorable David C Norton on 9/5/2017.(abuc) (Main Document 22 replaced on 9/5/2017) (abuc, ).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
SHERRIE LYNETTE LAWSON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security
This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D.
Austin’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting
Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill’s (“the Commissioner”) decision
denying plaintiff Sherrie Lynette Lawson’s (“Lawson”) application for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Lawson filed
objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and
affirms the Commissioner’s decision.
Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.
Lawson filed an application for DIB and SSI on September 28, 2012, alleging
disability beginning on September 18, 2012. The Social Security Agency denied
Lawson’s claim initially and on reconsideration. Lawson requested a hearing before an
On January 23, 2017, Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of Social
Security; therefore, she is substituted as the named defendant pursuant to Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 25(d).
administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Gregory M. Wilson held a hearing on
September 5, 2014.
The ALJ issued a decision on January 23, 2015, finding Lawson not disabled
under the Social Security Act. Lawson requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ’s
decision. The Appeals Council denied Lawson’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On June 7, 2016, Lawson filed this
action seeking review of the ALJ’s decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on
May 16, 2017, recommending that this court affirm the ALJ’s decision. Lawson filed
objections to the R&R on May 30, 2017, to which the Commissioner responded on June
5, 2017. The matter is now ripe for the court’s review.
Because Lawson’s medical history is not directly at issue here, the court dispenses
with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts. Lawson was born
on November 6, 1971, and was 40 years old on the alleged onset date. She has a high
school education, three years of technical training, and past relevant work experience as a
computer indexer, data entry, and surgical technician.
The Social Security Act 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 last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Social Security regulations establish a
five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Under this process, the ALJ must determine whether
the claimant: (1) “is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;” (2) “has a severe
impairment;” (3) has an impairment which equals an illness contained in 20 C.F.R. § 404,
Subpt. P, App’x 1, “which warrants a finding of disability without considering vocational
factors;” (4) if not, whether the claimant has an impairment that prevents her from
performing past relevant work; and (5) if so, “whether the claimant is able to perform
other work considering both [her] remaining physical and mental capacities” (defined by
her residual functional capacity) and her “vocational capabilities (age, education, and past
work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264–65 (4th Cir.
1981); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The applicant bears the burden of proof during the
first four steps of the inquiry, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner for the final
step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993
F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992)).
The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether Lawson was disabled from September 18, 2012, through the date
last insured, December 31, 2014. The ALJ first determined that Lawson did not engage
in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue. Tr. 20. At the second step, the
ALJ found that Lawson suffered from the following severe impairments: femur fracture,
status post-surgery; hypertension; obesity; and degenerative disc disease in the lumbar
spine. Tr. 20. At step three, the ALJ found that Lawson’s impairments or combination of
impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in the Agency’s Listings
of Impairments (“the Listings”). Tr. 24–25; see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App’x 1.
Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined Lawson had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b). Tr. 25. Specifically, the ALJ found that Lawson could lift or carry up to
twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand or walk for approximately
six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit (with normal breaks) for approximately six hours
in an eight-hour day; occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and
frequently balance and stoop; occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl; and avoid
concentrated exposure to hazards. Tr. 25. The ALJ found at step four that Lawson was
capable of performing past relevant work as a computer indexer, data entry, and surgical
technician. Tr. 34. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Lawson was not disabled during the
period at issue. Tr. 35.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the
magistrate judge’s R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1). A party’s failure to object is accepted as agreement with the magistrate
judge’s conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149–50 (1985). The R&R
carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests
with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270–71 (1976).
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision regarding disability benefits
“is limited to determining whether the findings of the [Commissioner] are supported by
substantial evidence and whether the correct law was applied.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907
F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “more than a
mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id.
(citations omitted). “[I]t is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the
weight of the evidence, nor is it the court’s function to substitute its judgment for that of
the [Commissioner] if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citation
omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a
claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ][,]” not on the
reviewing court. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted).
However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an
improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517
(4th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).
Lawson objects to the R&R on two grounds, arguing that the magistrate judge
erred in: (1) finding that the ALJ’s RFC was based on substantial evidence; and (2)
finding that the ALJ failed to make a proper credibility determination. Pl.’s Objs. 1–2.
The Court will address each of the objections below.2
The ALJ’s RFC Determination
First, Lawson argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment was not based on substantial
evidence. Id. Specifically, Lawson contends that the ALJ failed to: (1) “specify the
medical findings which supported the limitations and failed to cite the specific medical
As the Commissioner correctly asserts, Lawson fails to present proper objections
because they are merely the same arguments she previously raised in her initial brief and
thus have already been considered by the magistrate judge in the R&R. Def.’s Resp. to
Objs. 1–2 (citing Ward v. Colvin, No. 0:15-00975-TMC, 2016 WL 2956376, at *4
(D.S.C. May 23, 2016) (citation omitted) (“Rehashing arguments raised to the magistrate
judge does not comply with the requirements to file specific objections.”) and Anderson
v. Dobson, 627 F. Supp. 2d 619, 623 (W.D.N.C. 2007) (citation omitted) (“An objection
that . . . simply summarizes what has been presented before, is not an objection as that
term is used in this context.”)). However, the court will conduct a thorough review of
Lawson’s objections to show that the ALJ properly supported his RFC and credibility
determinations with substantial evidence.
facts and nonmedical evidence when making his RFC assessment[;]” and (2) “determine
[p]laintiff’s ‘ability to perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a
regular and continuing basis.’” Id. at 1. Notably, Lawson fails to make specific
objections about the evidence the ALJ allegedly failed to consider in performing the RFC
assessment, fails to cite to any record evidence or case law to support her arguments, and
fails to specify how the ALJ’s decision failed to comport with the governing regulations
and applicable case law. In response, the Commissioner contends that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC finding. Def.’s Resp. to Objs. 2.
The RFC is “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). When determining a claimant’s RFC, the ALJ “‘must
first identify the individual’s functional limitations or restrictions and assess . . . her
work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions listed in the
regulations.’” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)). The ALJ must take into account “all of [the
claimant’s] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware,’ including
those not labeled severe at step two.” Id. (alterations in original) (citation omitted). The
ALJ must “‘consider all [the claimant’s] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to
which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence.’” Id. (alterations in original) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529(a)). If laboratory findings and medical signs demonstrate the claimant has “‘a
medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce [her]
symptoms, such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate the intensity and persistence of
[the claimant’s] symptoms so that [the ALJ] can determine how [her] symptoms limit
[her] capacity to work.’” Id. (alterations in original) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§
“The RFC assessment must include a discussion of why reported symptom-related
functional limitations and restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as consistent
with the medical and other evidence.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2,
1996); see also Monroe, 826 F.3d at 188 (quoting SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7)
(“‘In all cases in which symptoms, such as pain, are alleged, the RFC assessment must . .
. [i]nclude a resolution of any inconsistencies in the evidence as a whole’ and ‘[s]et forth
a logical explanation of the effects of the symptoms, including pain, or the individual’s
ability to work.’”). Importantly, “[a]n ALJ is not required to discuss all the evidence
submitted, and an ALJ’s failure to cite specific evidence does not indicate that it was not
considered. However, the ALJ must build an accurate and logical bridge from the
evidence to his conclusion.” Dobbing v. Colvin, CIVIL ACTION NO. 0:15-04030MGL, 2016 WL 6246495, at *3 (D.S.C. Oct. 26, 2016) (citations omitted). Therefore,
“‘[a] necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the
basis for the ALJ’s ruling,’ including ‘a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found
credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the
record evidence.’” Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189 (quoting Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288,
295 (4th Cir. 2013)).
In a vague, conclusory objection, Lawson contends that the ALJ “failed to specify
the medical findings which supported the limitations and failed to cite the specific
medical facts and nonmedical evidence when making his RFC assessment[;]” however,
she neither mentions additional limitations the ALJ failed to consider nor provides any
support for her argument. Pl.’s Objs. 2. Furthermore, the ALJ is not required to
specifically reference a particular medical finding in support of a determined limitation.
In addition, her argument that the ALJ failed to consider whether Lawson could perform
work “in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis” is not supported by
the record as whole. Importantly, Lawson fails to point to any medical evidence of
record to support her argument that she is incapable of an eight-hour workday, five days a
As shown in the ALJ’s opinion and noted in the R&R, the ALJ thoroughly
examined the entire record and supported his RFC determination based on substantial
evidence. See R&R 20–22; see e.g., Tr. 26 (Three months after her September 2012 hip
surgery, Lawson “reported some knee pain but reported that her hip had been doing well
and she denied any numbness or weakness. She also reported that her pain was
satisfactorily controlled . . . . A physical exam revealed that the claimant had good range
of motion in her hip without any pain.”); Tr. 26 (After reporting right knee pain between
September and December 2012, examinations revealed tenderness in her knee, but full
range of motion and no instability); Tr. 26 (In December 2012, Lawson “reported
moderate pain relief with an injection.”); T. 26 (Lawson admitted she did not seek any
treatment for knee complaints after January 2013.”); Tr. 27 (In May 2013, Lawson
“reported feeling well without any specific complaints[,]” and the examination showed
she had a normal gait); Tr. 27 (In December 2013, a neurological examination was
normal with intact sensation and a normal gait); Tr. 27 (On April 16, 2014, Lawson’s
surgeon, Dr. Mina, reported that Lawson “had done very well with near complete
resolution of her symptoms” and that she “had a normal gait and station, normal muscle
strength and tone in all extremities, she had no impairment of memory, normal attention
span and ability to concentrate, normal sensation, normal coordination and normal deep
tendon reflexes.”). Therefore, the court finds the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence, and Lawson’s objection concerning lack of substantial evidence in
the ALJ’s RFC determination lacks merit.
The ALJ’s Credibility Determination
Second, Lawson claims that the magistrate judge erred in determining that the
ALJ’s credibility findings were based on substantial evidence. Pl.’s Objs. 2. In response,
the Commissioner contends substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s credibility
determination as described in the R&R. Def.’s Resp. 2.
Lawson correctly states that the ALJ’s decision “‘must contain specific reasons
for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be
sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the
weight the adjudicator gave to the individuals’ statements and the reasons for that
weight.’” See Pl.’s Objs. 3 (quoting S.S.R. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *2). However,
contrary to Lawson’s argument, the ALJ properly provided reasoning for his rejection of
Lawson’s testimony and adequately supported his credibility determination by setting
forth substantial evidentiary support from the record. See e.g., Tr. 28 (“I have discredited
the claimant’s testimony reporting subjective complaints of knee pain based on
substantial evidence of record, most notably that the claimant has not sought treatment
for same since January 2013.”); Tr. 28 (“I have further discredited the claimant’s
testimony regarding her back problems based on record evidence suggesting substantial
improvement after surgery and testimony regarding mental symptoms based on record
evidence suggesting no ongoing limitations and significant improvement in symptoms
with medication.”); Tr. 30 (“[T]he degree of physical limitation suggested by the
claimant’s hearing testimony is not reasonably supported by physical examinations and
diagnostic tests[.] [T]his serves to undermine the persuasiveness of the claimant’s
allegations.”); Tr. 30–31 (“[P]hysical examinations and surgical intervention do not
support the claimant’s testimony. 6 weeks post lumbar surgery[,] the claimant was
reported to be doing very well with near complete resolution of preoperative symptoms.
Physical examinations prior to and subsequent to surgery revealed no weakness, fatigue,
sleep disturbance, tingling, weakness or numbness. Other examinations revealed normal
gait, 5/5 strength, intact sensation, normal reflexes, normal coordination and negative
straight leg raise. Treatment records also reveal the claimant did not have any cervical
pain, on occasions she reported feeling well without any specific complaints[,] no
edema, warmth or tenderness of the extremities and that surgical intervention provided
improvement with regard to the lumbar spine and surgical intervention of the femur
fracture was well healed and she was not experiencing numbness[,] weakness[,] or pain.
Other examinations revealed good range of motion of the right hip without pain[,] good
range of motion of the knee[,] with x-rays of the knee revealing benign findings[,] and no
tenderness of the lower extremities.”)
In addition, the ALJ found that Lawson’s complaints were not only inconsistent
with the objective medical evidence, but that they also conflicted with her reported
activities. See Tr. 30 (noting Lawson testified that her daily activities consisted of
“laundry, sweeping, washing dishes, cooking, . . . going to the Dollar Store, going to the
grocery store, dusting, cleaning the stove and cabinets, visiting with her father twice
weekly, and going out to eat once per week”); Tr. 31 (noting that Lawson helped a friend
Therefore, the court finds that the ALJ articulated proper reasons to support his
credibility determination, which is supported by substantial evidence, including Lawson’s
statements to medical providers, Lawson’s daily activities, and the conclusions of treating
Based on the foregoing, the court ADOPTS the R&R and AFFIRMS the
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
DAVID C. NORTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
September 5, 2017
Charleston, South Carolina
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?