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Massey v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

BETSY W. MASSEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment, (Doc. Nos. 9, 14); the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”), recommending that this Court uphold the decision of the Commissioner, (Doc. No. 17); Plaintiff's Objections to the M&R, (Doc. No. 18); Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Objections, (Doc. No. 19); and the parties' briefs and exhibits in support. The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Neither 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. Review of the Magistrate Judge's M&R

         A district court may assign dispositive pretrial matters to a magistrate judge for “proposed findings of fact and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (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); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983). 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.

         B. Review of a Final ALJ Decision under the Social Security Act

         The Court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner fulfilled her lawful duty in her determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1382(c).

         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 SSA 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).


         Plaintiff makes three objections to the M&R: (1) the ALJ did not give legally sufficient reasons supported by substantial evidence for finding Plaintiff's testimony not entirely consistent; (2) the ALJ did not explain how he found Plaintiff is capable of light level work for two-hour intervals on a sustained basis in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (3) the ALJ accepted testimony from the VE which appears to conflict with the DOT yet failed to obtain an explanation from the VE. The second and third objections were general regurgitations of arguments already advanced in Plaintiff's initial briefing accompanying her summary judgment motion. The M&R already considered and analyzed those arguments. After conducting a de novo review of the M&R, Plaintiff's Objections thereto, and the record, the Court agrees with the M&R's analysis and overrules the second and third objections. Thus, the Court incorporates the M&R's discussion of those arguments herein.

         Regarding Plaintiff's first objection, although Plaintiff also made the same general argument in her initial briefing, she lodged a more specific allegation of error in her objection: Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate her ability to use her hands. And Plaintiff asserts that if the ALJ had properly evaluated Plaintiff's ability to handle and finger, he would have reached a different ...

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