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Mitchell v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Jewel R. Mitchell's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 12), his Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 13), Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 14), her Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 15); and the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”), (Doc. No. 17), recommending this Court remand these proceedings for further clarification regarding the ALJ's step-three findings in the sequential analysis. Defendant has submitted a timely objection, (Doc. No. 18), to which the Plaintiff has submitted a reply, (Doc. No. 19). The Motions are now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

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


         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).


         On appeal, Plaintiff asks the Court to remand the ALJ's decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. In doing so, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to give adequate reasoning to support both his step three findings and his rejection of Plaintiff's treating physician's opinion. (Doc. No. 13). In his M&R, the Magistrate Judge agreed with Plaintiff's first argument and recommended the Court remand the case for further proceedings on that basis. (Doc. No. 17). Specifically, the Magistrate Judge found that “Plaintiff has mustered a formidable argument that the Listing in question was met. In that context, it seems particularly important that the ALJ's explanation of his actual analysis of the question of the Listing was so sparing.” (Id. at 10).

         Defendant objects to the Magistrate Judge's M&R, asserting that the ALJ sufficiently explained his reasoning as to why Plaintiff's back symptoms did not meet the requirements of Listing 1.04(A), disorders of the spine. (Doc. No. 18). Defendant maintains that: (1) the ALJ specified that Plaintiff did not show the required symptoms to find nerve root compression; (2) an ALJ's reasoning in step three does not need to match the more thorough narrative RFC analysis; (3) Plaintiff failed to show that alleged symptoms showing nerve root compression lasted for 12 months; (4) the ALJ's adoption of Dr. Jimenez-Medina's opinion supports the step three finding; and (5) the Magistrate Judge did not determine whether any possible step three error constituted harmless error. (Id.). For the reasons stated below, the Court reaches the same conclusion as the Magistrate Judge, albeit through slightly different means.

         In his decision, during step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “desiccation dehydration L3-4 through LS-Sl; ventral extradural effacement of thecal sac at LS-Sl; broad-based bulge with left foraminal entry zone focal protrusion at LS-Sl; a speech and language impairment; and obesity.” (Tr. 35). Then, during step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no impairments, or combination of impairments, that met the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. 36). Specifically, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff failed to meet the requirements of Listing 1.04(A), disorders of the spine, because “the claimant does not have the required evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar stenosis resulting in pseudo-claudication.” (Id.).

         The ALJ thus presented three reasons why Plaintiff did not meet Listing 1.04(A). These reasons alone separate the ALJ's decision from the cases where the Fourth Circuit found insufficient explanation. In those cases, Courts found no explanation whatsoever. For instance, in Radford v. Colvin, the ALJ “provided no basis for his conclusion, except to say that he had ‘considered, in particular, ' the listings above, and had noted that state medical examiners had also ‘concluded after reviewing the evidence that no listing [was] met or equaled.'” 734 F.3d 288, 292 (4th Cir. 2013) (emphasis added). Similarly, in Fox v. Colvin, the ALJ's full step three analysis stated,

Although the claimant has “severe” impairments, they do not meet the criteria of any listed impairments described in Appendix 1 of the Regulations (20 CFR, Subpart P, Appendix 1). No treating or examining physician has mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical findings that are the same or equivalent to those of any listed impairment of the Listing of Impairments. In reaching this conclusion, the undersigned has considered, in particular, sections 9.00(B)(5) and 11.14.

632 Fed.Appx. 750, 754-55 (4th Cir. 2015); see also Henson v. Berryhill, No. 1:15-CV-00123-RJC, 2017 WL 5195882, at *6 (W.D. N.C. Nov. 9, 2017) (where this Court found step three analysis insufficient where the ALJ summarily wrote, “There are insufficient findings on either examination or diagnostic test workup to confirm the presence of an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the criteria of any impairment listed therein.”).

         On the other hand, sufficient reasoning existed in cases such as Ruff v. ...

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