United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
WENDY A. HARTWIG, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge
matter comes before the court on the parties'
cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 17, 19).
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James
E. Gates issued a memorandum and recommendation
(“M&R”) (DE 22), wherein it is recommended
that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant
defendant's motion, and affirm the final decision by
defendant. Plaintiff timely filed an objection to the M&R
and defendant did not file a response. In this posture, the
issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that
follow, the court adopts the recommendation of the magistrate
9, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for disability
insurance benefits and supplemental social security income,
alleging disability beginning April 22, 2009. The application
was denied initially and upon reconsideration. A hearing was
held on August 9, 2011, before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) who determined that plaintiff was not
disabled in decision dated August 24, 2011. Plaintiff
appealed the ALJ's decision to the appeals council. On
November 30, 2012, the appeals council vacated the 2011
decision and remanded the case. A supplemental hearing was
held on April 22, 2104, before a new ALJ, who, in decision
dated August 8, 2014, determined that plaintiff was not
disabled during the relevant time period. The appeals council
denied plaintiff's request for review on September 11,
2015, and the ALJ's August 8, 2014, decision became
defendant's final decision with respect to
plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff filed the instant action on
November 6, 2015, seeking review of defendant's decision.
Standard of Review
court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to
review defendant's final decision denying benefits. The
court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if
they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached
through application of the correct legal standard.”
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
“Substantial evidence is . . . such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by
“more than a mere scintilla of evidence . . . but less
than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368
F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial
evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting
evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute
[its] judgment” for defendant's. Craig, 76
F.3d at 589.
necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence
review . . . is a record of the basis for the ALJ's
ruling, which should include a discussion of which evidence
the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of
the pertinent legal requirements to the record
evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288,
295 (4th Cir.2013). An ALJ's decision must “
‘include a narrative discussion describing how the
evidence supports each conclusion, ' ” Monroe
v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir.
2015)), and an ALJ “must build an accurate and logical
bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.”
Id. (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d
863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
assist in its review of defendant's denial of benefits,
the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct
hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact
and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for
judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate
judge's findings and recommendations, and the court
“shall make a de novo determination of those portions
of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made.”
Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a
de novo review where a party makes only “general and
conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a
specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and
recommendation.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d
44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Absent a specific and timely filed
objection, the court reviews only for “clear error,
” and need not give any explanation for adopting the
M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins.
Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v.
Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful
review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations
made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. §
ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security
benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process,
which asks whether:
(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of
impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medial
impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the
impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can
perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant
can perform other specified types of work.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir.
2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof
is on the social security claimant during the first four
steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner of
Social Security (“Commissioner”) at the fifth
step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir.
instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation.
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since April 22, 2009, the
alleged onset date of plaintiff's disability. At step
two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: status-post dog bite to the left ring finger
with subsequent surgeries and eventual amputation of that
finger, degenerative disc disease to the cervical and lumbar
spines, depression, and anxiety with post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”). However, at step three, the
ALJ determined that these impairments were not severe enough
to meet or, either individually or in combination, medically
equal one of the listed impairments in the regulations
(“listings” or “listed impairments”).
See 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1
[hereinafter “Listing of Impairments”].
proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the
relevant time period plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform ...