Boyd v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
ORDER rejecting 16 Report and Recommendation, reversing the Commissioner's decision, and remanding for further administrative proceedings. Signed by Honorable David C Norton on 3/2/2015.(cahe, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant’s Report
and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court affirm Acting Commissioner of Social
Security Carolyn Colvin’s decision denying plaintiff’s application for supplemental
security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff Terri Boyd (“Boyd”) filed objections to the R&R. For
the reasons set forth below, the court reverses the Commissioner’s decision and remands
for further administrative proceedings.
Unless otherwise noted, the following background is drawn from the R&R.
Boyd filed an application for SSI on October 26, 2010, alleging disability
beginning on November 1, 2005. The Social Security Agency denied Boyd’s claim
initially and on reconsideration. Boyd requested a hearing before an administrative law
judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ Alice Jordan held a hearing on May 8, 2012. The ALJ issued a
decision on August 10, 2012, finding Boyd not disabled under the Social Security Act.
Boyd requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council
declined to review the decision, rendering the ALJ’s decision the final action of the
On November 22, 2013, Boyd filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s
decision. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on December 4, 2014, recommending that
this court affirm the ALJ’s decision. Boyd filed objections to the R&R on December 22,
2014 and the Commissioner filed a response on January 8, 2015. The matter is now ripe
for the court’s review.
Because Boyd’s medical history is not relevant to the disposition of this case, the
court dispenses with a lengthy recitation thereof and instead notes a few relevant facts.
Boyd was born on March 30, 1980 and was 30 years old on the alleged onset date.
Boyd’s education level is unclear – she testified at the hearing that she completed ninth
grade, but at other times has stated that she completed tenth grade or had even graduated
from high school. Although Boyd testified to working as a babysitter, cashier, and
telemarketer, the ALJ found that she did not have any past relevant work.
The ALJ employed the statutorily-required five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether Boyd was disabled from October 26, 2010 through August 10,
2012. The ALJ first determined that Boyd had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
during the relevant time period. Tr. 14. At the second step, the ALJ found that Boyd
suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, sleep apnea, hypothyroidism,
degenerative joint disease involving right knee, depression, and anxiety. Id. At step
three, the ALJ determined that Boyd’s impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed
impairments in the Agency’s Listing of Impairments (“the Listings”). Id. at 15; see 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App’x 1. Before reaching the fourth step, the ALJ determined
that Boyd had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), specifically that she could: lift twenty pounds occasionally and
ten pounds frequently; sit, stand, and walk for six hours each in an eight-hour workday;
frequently climb and balance; and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Tr. 17.
The ALJ further determined that Boyd must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and
should be limited to frequent public contact. Id. The ALJ found, at step four, that Boyd
has no past relevant work. Tr. 21. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that
considering Boyd’s age, education, work experience and RFC, she could perform jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore concluded that she
was not disabled during the period at issue. Tr. 21-22.
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 conclusions of
the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The
recommendation of the magistrate judge 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). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of
evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal 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. 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) (internal citation omitted).
Boyd objects to the R&R on three grounds, arguing that the magistrate judge
erred in: (1) finding that the ALJ’s failure to weigh the opinion of Dr. Rebecca Alsip,
Boyd’s treating physician, was harmless error; (2) finding that the ALJ properly rejected
the opinions of Dr. Gordon Early, an examining physician; and (3) finding that the ALJ
properly determined Boyd’s RFC. Because Boyd’s first objection provides a basis for
remand, the court need not consider the remaining objections.
Boyd contends that the ALJ erred by failing to assign any weight to Dr. Alsip,
Boyd’s treating physician. Pl.’s Objections 1.
Regulations require that a treating physician’s opinion be given controlling weight
if that opinion “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the
record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see, e.g., Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th
Cir. 2001). “By negative implication, if a physician’s opinion is not supported by clinical
evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded
significantly less weight.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. In such a circumstance, “the ALJ holds
the discretion to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face of
persuasive contrary evidence.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178.
Regardless of how much weight an ALJ gives a treating physician’s opinion, it is
well-settled that an ALJ must “explicitly indicate the weight given to all of the relevant
evidence.” Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984) (emphasis added);
see also id. at 236 (directing the ALJ on remand to “indicate explicitly the weight
accorded to the various medical reports in the record”); DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d
148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983) (“The Secretary must present us with findings and
determinations sufficiently articulated to permit meaningful judicial review.”); Arnold v.
Sec’y of Health, Ed. & Welfare, 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977) (“Unless the Secretary
has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to
obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence
approaches an abdication of the court’s duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.” (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted)); Id. at 260 (holding that claimants are entitled to have “evidence
properly considered and to have the Secretary explain how he treated it in arriving at his
conclusion”); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(b), (c) (“In determining whether you are disabled, we
will always consider the medical opinions in your case record together with the rest of the
relevant evidence we receive” and, “[r]egardless of its source, we will evaluate every
medical opinion we receive.”); SSR 96-2p (“Treating source medical opinions are still
entitled to deference and must be weighed using all of the factors provided in 20 CFR
404.1527 and 416.927.”); id. (“[T]he notice of the determination or decision must contain
specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source’s medical opinion, supported
by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any
subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source’s medical
opinion and the reasons for that weight.”).
It is undisputed that the ALJ “did not explicitly state that she rejected Dr. Alsip’s
opinion.” Comm’r’s Br. 7. However, the magistrate judge determined that “any
inartfulness in the ALJ’s conclusion in this regard is not a basis on which to overturn the
decision under the facts of this case” and held that the ALJ’s failure to weigh Dr. Alsip’s
opinion was harmless error. R&R 14-15.
Under the harmless error doctrine, if the ALJ’s decision “is overwhelmingly
supported by the record though the agency’s original opinion failed to marshal that
support, then remanding is a waste of time.” Bishop v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 583 F.
App’x 65, 67 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Spiva v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 346, 353 (7th Cir. 2010)).
It is not enough that the record “establish[es] that the administrative law judge might
have reached the same result had she considered all the evidence and evaluated it.”
Spiva, 628 F.3d at 353 (emphasis in original).
The magistrate judge ably compiled the evidence of record in the R&R.
However, because of the importance of treating physicians’ opinions and the unequivocal
law stating that the ALJ must weigh such opinions and provide good reasons for the
weight given, the court is extremely hesitant to accept what is, at most, an implicit
rejection of Dr. Alsip’s opinion. After a thorough review of the record and the parties’
briefs, the court cannot conclude that the ALJ’s decision is so overwhelmingly supported
by the record as to forgive her failure to weigh the opinion of Boyd’s treating physician.
Because the ALJ erred in failing to weigh Dr. Alsip’s opinion, the court remands
for further administrative proceedings. See Vanartsdalen v. Colvin, No. CIV.A. 5:122948-MGL, 2014 WL 798409, at *3 (D.S.C. Feb. 27, 2014) (remanding for further
administrative proceedings where ALJ failed to weigh treating physicians’ opinions). On
remand, the ALJ should consider Boyd’s other allegations of error.
Based on the foregoing, the court REJECTS the magistrate judge’s R&R,
REVERSES the Commissioner’s decision, and REMANDS for further administrative
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
DAVID C. NORTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
March 2, 2015
Charleston, South Carolina
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