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Leonard v. Berryhill

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

March 7, 2018

JERRY L. LEONARD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

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

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Jerry L. Leonard's (“Plaintiff's”) Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11); his Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12); Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant's”) Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 13); her Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 14); and the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”), (Doc. No. 15), recommending that this Court grant Defendant's motion. Plaintiff has filed an objection to the Magistrate Judge's M&R, (Doc. No. 16).[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         No party has objected to the Magistrate Judge's statement of the procedural or factual background of this case. Therefore, the Court adopts the facts as set forth in the M&R.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court may assign dispositive pretrial matters, including motions to dismiss, to a magistrate judge for “proposed findings of fact and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) & (B). The Federal Magistrate Act provides that a district 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)(C); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). However, “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). De novo review is also not required “when a party makes general or conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations.” Id. Similarly, when no objection is filed, “a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, advisory committee note).

         When reviewing social security cases on appeal, the Court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner fulfilled his lawful duty in his determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1382(c).

         The Social Security Act, 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 [do]ing more than creat[ing] 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); 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 v. Schweiker, 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the Court should remand the Commissioner's decision because the ALJ erred when he: (1) failed to afford appropriate weight to the opinion evidence within the record; (2) found that Plaintiff could perform “Light Work” despite the limiting effects of his migraines; and (3) failed to find that Plaintiff's anxiety disorder was a severe impairment. (Doc. No. 12). In his M&R, the Magistrate Judge did not find Plaintiff's arguments persuasive and recommended this Court grant Defendant's Motion. (Doc. No. 15).

         Though the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's M&R, it will review the issues raised in Plaintiff's objections de novo. Specifically, Plaintiff objects to the M&R's conclusion that the record did not support the fact that Plaintiff's migraines would negatively impact his ability to work and remain on task throughout the work day. Plaintiff also argues that the M&R improperly analyzed the amount of weight the ALJ afforded to Ms. Clatfelter, Plaintiff's treating psychotherapist. Finally, Plaintiff objects to the M&R's assessment of Dr. Carraway's findings as a consultative opinion.

         A. The M&R Properly Concluded That the ALJ's Decision Adequately Accounted for the Limiting Effects of Plaintiff's Migraines.

         In his M&R, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ properly took into account Plaintiff's migraines when determining his residual function capacity (“RFC”). (Doc. No. 15 at 11-12). The M&R emphasized the role of the ALJ when conflicting evidence exists within the medical record. The M&R quotes Defendant's brief, which stated that, “[u]ltimately, it is the duty of the administrative law judge reviewing a case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence.” (Doc. No. 15 at 12) (quoting (Doc. No. 14 at 18) and Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 ...


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