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Meadows v. Berryhill

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

October 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and supporting memorandum, (Doc. Nos. 9, 10); Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and memorandum in support, (Doc. Nos. 15, 16); the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”), (Doc. No. 17), recommending that this Court grant the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; Plaintiff's Objections to the M&R, (Doc. No. 18); and Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Objections to the M&R, (Doc. No. 19).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Leslie Lee Meadows (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of his social security claim. In May 2014, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the SSA. (Doc. No. 8 to 8-8: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 208, 216). Initially, Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled on November 27, 2013 due to degenerative disc disease, blood clot disease, and atrial fibrillation. (Id.). Later, prior to a hearing held on October 20, 2015, Plaintiff amended his alleged disability date to January 29, 2014. (Id. at 228). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled according to the standards of the SSA from January 29, 2014 through December 29, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 26-34). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council denied the request, consequently making the ALJ's decision the Defendant's final decision. (Id. at. 1). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the decision under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Magistrate Judge filed an M&R on March 3, 2017, concluding that the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all the evidence on record, including Plaintiff's complaints and the opinions of Dr. Alexander Powers. (Doc. No. 17 at 7). Therefore, the Magistrate Judge recommended that Plaintiff's motion be denied and the Social Security Administration's motion be granted. (Id. at 9). Plaintiff filed an Objection to the M&R on March 17, 2017. (Doc. No. 18). On March 31, 2017, Defendant filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Objection to the M&R. (Doc. No. 19). The pending motions are ripe for adjudication.

         B. Factual Background

         Neither party has objected to the Magistrate Judge's statement of the factual background of this case. Therefore, the Court adopts the facts as set forth in the M&R.


         The district court may assign dispositive pretrial matters pending before the court to a magistrate judge for “proposed findings of fact and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). 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.” Id. at § 636(b)(1)(C); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983). Under Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court judge shall make a de novo determination of any portion of an M&R to which specific written objection has been made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Nonetheless, “when objections to strictly legal issues are raised and no factual issues are challenged, de novo review of the record may be dispensed with.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Similarly, de novo review is not required by the statute “when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Id. Ultimately, a district judge is responsible for the final determination and outcome of the case, and accordingly, this Court has conducted a careful review of the Magistrate Judge's M&R.

         Regarding review of the Commissioner's decision, the SSA, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3) limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As the Social Security Act provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, the Fourth Circuit noted that “substantial evidence” has been defined as being “more than a scintilla, and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401) (brackets in original); see also Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) (“We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence . . . .”).

         The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that it is not for a reviewing court to weigh the evidence again, nor to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Smith, 795 F.2d at 345; Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775. Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome-so long as there is “substantial evidence” in the record to support the final decision below. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).


         Plaintiff objects to the M&R, asserting two arguments. First, Plaintiff asserts that the Magistrate Judge erred in confirming the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's RFC. (Doc. No. 18 at 2-6). Second, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ did not abuse his discretion when he offered Plaintiff a closed period of disability at a hearing only to later issue an unfavorable decision. (Id. at 6-9). After review of the record, ...

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