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Hartwig v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

March 24, 2017

WENDY A. HARTWIG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge

         This 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 judge.

         BACKGROUND

         On June 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.

         DISCUSSION

         1. Standard of Review

         The 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.

         “A 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).

         To 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. § 636(b)(1).

         The 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. 1995).

         In the 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”].

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform ...


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