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Culbreath v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

June 24, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting COMMISSIONER of Social Security, Defendant.


RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 14, 16).


Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), United States Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler was designated to consider and recommend disposition of the aforesaid motions. In an opinion filed February 25, 2014, the Magistrate Judge opined that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)'s findings and determination as to Plaintiff's disability were not supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, failed to support the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 18/M & R). The Magistrate Judge determined that the ALJ erred in the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process by relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the Grids") rather than obtaining vocational evidence to evaluate the effect Plaintiff's nonexertional limitations had on her residual functional capacity (or "RFC"). (M & R at 7-12). More specifically, the Magistrate Judge questioned the ALJ's finding at Step Five that Plaintiff Culbreath's mental impairment (Affective Disorder) "had little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled medium work" and stated he was not persuaded that the ALJ had shown that substantial evidence supports a finding that "other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do." (M & R at 7) (citing Tr. 21). As a result, the Magistrate Judge recommended that Plaintiff Culbreath's motion for summary judgment be granted; that Defendant's motion for summary judgment be denied; and that the Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period be vacated; and that this matter be remanded for further consideration including the assistance of a Vocational Expert. (M & R at 9-10). On March 14, 2014, the Commissioner timely filed objections to the M & R. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c). (Doc. 19). Plaintiff Culbreath filed a reply on March 19, 2014. (Doc. 20).


The Federal Magistrate Act provides that "a district court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specific proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983); Keeler v. Pea, 782 F.Supp. 42, 43 (D.S.C. 1992). The statute does not require de novo review when an objecting party makes only general or conclusory objections that do not direct the court to the specific error in the magistrate judge's recommendations. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315-16 (4th Cir.2005); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Further, the statute does not on its face require any review at all of issues that are not the subject of an objection. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985); Camby, 718 F.2d at 200. Nonetheless, a district judge is responsible for the final determination and outcome of the case, and accordingly the Court has conducted a careful review of the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation as well as a de novo review of the matters specifically raised in the Commissioner's Objections.


The undersigned agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ's analysis at Step Five is conclusory. As explained herein, the ALJ's treatment of Plaintiff Culbreath's Affective Disorder, in terms of actual functional limitations and the effect on the availability of jobs, is deficient and therefore not supported by substantial evidence.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff Culbreath suffered from Affective Disorder, a nonexertional impairment. (Tr. 15). "Affective Disorder" refers to one of nine diagnostic categories of mental disorders identified in the Listings.[1] See 20 CFR § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("Appendix 1" or "Listings"). Affective Disorders are "characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation." Id., § 12.04.

The Code of Federal Regulations prescribes a special technique for evaluating mental impairments at every step of the sequential evaluation process. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(a), this method for evaluating mental impairments is designed to help the Commissioner:

(1) Identify the need for additional evidence to determine impairment severity;
(2) Consider and evaluate functional consequences of the mental disorder(s) relevant to your ability to work; and
(3) Organize and present our findings in a clear, concise, and ...

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