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Carter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 31, 2017

SYBIL CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BARRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          N. Carlton Tilley, Jr. Senior United States District Judge.

         On August 25, 2016, the United States Magistrate Judge's Memorandum Opinion and Recommendation (“Recommendation”) was filed and notice was served on the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. [Doc. #14.] Plaintiff Sybil Carter timely objected. [Doc. #15.] After consideration of the evidence of record, this Court finds that the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision is supported by substantial evidence, and as a result, will overrule Ms. Carter's objections and adopt the Recommendation.

         Federal law authorizes judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is “extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ[2] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks 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.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472.

         Ms. Carter filed an application for Social Security Disability Benefits on April 25, 2012 alleging a disability onset date of November 1, 2008. (Tr. at 262.) Ms. Carter's application was initially denied on May 11, 2012 and upon reconsideration on July 23, 2012. (Tr. at 114, 140-141.) Ms. Carter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on May 9, 2014. (Tr. at 72.) Ms. Carter, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Id.) In an opinion dated July 25, 2014, the ALJ found that Ms. Carter did not qualify as disabled. (Tr. at 49-66.) Ms. Carter appealed the ALJ's finding to the Appeals Council. On November 5, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Carter's request for review. (Tr. at 1-6.)

         After the Appeals Council denied review, Ms. Carter brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Compl. [Doc. #1].) Commissioner filed an Answer. [Doc. #6.] Subsequently, Ms. Carter filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. #10] and supporting Memorandum [Doc. #11]. Commissioner then filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. #12] and supporting Memorandum [Doc. #13]. The Recommendation was filed on August 25, 2016 and Ms. Carter filed her objections. [Docs. #14, 15.] Thus, this case is ripe for review.

         Ms. Carter objects to the Recommendation with regard to three issues: (1) the Magistrate Judge erred in confirming the ALJ's determination that Ms. Carter does not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine, and engaged in improper fact-finding to do so, (2) the Magistrate Judge erred in not finding improper the ALJ's failure to accord appropriate weight to the opinion evidence in the record, and (3) the Magistrate Judge erred in confirming the ALJ's determination that Ms. Carter can perform a limited range of light work. (Pl.'s Objs. to Rec. of U.S. Magistrate Judge “Pl.'s Objs.” [Doc. #15].)

         Ms. Carter first argues that the ALJ erred in finding that her impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine. (Id. at 3-5.) Ms. Carter cites to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal's decision in Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013) in support of her assertion that remand is required where the ALJ “simply state[d] in a conclusory fashion that a plaintiff's impairments do not meet a listing.” (Id. at 3.) Like the present action, Radford involved an alleged Disorder of the Spine, but in a different context. Radford concerned the ALJ adding a temporal proximity component in order to find someone disabled under Listing 1.04. The Fourth Circuit found that there is not a proximity component and remand was appropriate because of that issue. The Radford court went on to find that

A full explanation by the ALJ is particularly important in this case because Radford's medical record includes a fair amount of evidence supportive of his claim; indeed, there are five years of medical examinations, and there is probative evidence strongly suggesting that Radford meets or equals Listing 1.04A.

Id. at 295. Yet, the present record does not support Ms. Carter's contention that Radford instructs that her case be remanded. She is correct that the ALJ's report does not give a thorough explanation of why he did not think she met Listing 1.04 nor a thorough application of the record to the listing criteria and the Recommendation acknowledges both these issues. (Tr. at 56; R & R. [Doc. #14] at 13.) But unlike the record in Radford, Ms. Carter's medical record does not “include a fair amount of evidence supportive of [her] claim.” Radford, 734 F.3d at 295.

         Specifically, there are three ways a claimant can be determined disabled under Listing 1.04.

1.04 Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord. With:
A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the ...

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