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Hullender v. Saul

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

September 16, 2019

DAVID A. HULLENDER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

          MAX O. COGBURN JR. UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Memorandum and Recommendation (#16) of the magistrate judge. In the Memorandum and Recommendation, the magistrate judge advised the parties of the right to file objections within 14 days, all in accordance with 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(c). Plaintiff timely filed Objections (#17), the Commissioner timely filed a Response (#18), to which Plaintiff filed a Reply (#19).

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Federal Magistrates Act of 1979, as amended, 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); 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). Similarly, de novo review is not required by the statute “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. Moreover, the statute does not on its face require any review at all of issues that are not the subject of an objection. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985); Camby, 718 F.2d at 200. Nonetheless, a district judge is responsible for the final determination and outcome of the case, and accordingly the Court has conducted a careful review of the magistrate judge's recommendation.

         Plaintiff objects to the magistrate judge's findings that (1) the ALJ properly weighed the opinions of a treating physician and a nurse, and (2) the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC. (See Pl. Obj. (#17)). The Court will consider each objection in turn. Plaintiff has not objected to the magistrate judge's conclusion that the ALJ properly relied on the vocational expert's testimony.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's First Objection

         Plaintiff first argues that the magistrate judge incorrectly concluded that the ALJ gave proper weight to the opinion of a treating physician, Cynthia Witt, MD, and a mental health nurse, Novlett Campbell, APRN. Plaintiff contends that the reasons the ALJ gave for giving Dr. Witt's opinions little weight are not supported by substantial evidence.

         1. The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion of Dr. Witt

         A treating physician is a physician who has observed the plaintiff's condition over a prolonged period of time. Mitchell v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 185, 187 (4th Cir. 1983). The opinion of a treating physician is only entitled to controlling weight if it is supported by “clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, ” and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2).

If a physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, then the “factors listed below” and in paragraphs (d)(3) through (5) used to determine the amount of weight to be given it are (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination (“the longer a treating source has treated you and the more times you have been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will give to the source's medical opinion”); (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) supportability (“the more a medical source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight we will give that opinion”); (4) consistency (“the more consistent an opinion is with the record as a whole, the more weight we will give to that opinion”); and (5) specialization (“[w]e generally give more weight to the opinion of a specialist about medical issues related to his or her area of specialty than to the opinion of a source who is not a specialist”). Id. The regulation also makes clear, however, that the ultimate determination of disability is reserved for the Commissioner, and “[a] statement by a medical source that you are ‘disabled' or ‘unable to work' does not mean that we will determine that you are disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(1).

Pittman v. Massanari 141 F.Supp.2d 601, *608 (W.D. N.C. 2001). Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ relied only on evidence that supported his unfavorable determination, rather than considering Plaintiff's entire treatment history with Dr. Witt. Plaintiff also takes issue with the magistrate judge's observation that Dr. Witt's assessment was a “check-box” or “fill-in-the-blank” form and that such forms are often due less weight because they are often less well-supported than other opinions. (Pl. Obj. 2-3; M&R 9, n.4). This observation, however, was not the only reason the magistrate judge found in favor of the ALJ's analysis. Indeed, the magistrate judge merely acknowledged, in a footnote, that “check-box” forms are entitled to little weight. Id. He also noted that Dr. Witt's single-sentence assessment[2] was conclusory in nature and, as such, his medical opinion was entitled to less weight due to lack of supporting evidence. (M&R 10 (citing Tr. 30)); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(3), 416.927(c)(3) (“The more a medical source presents relevant evidence to support a medical opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight we will give that medical opinion.”). In addition, both the magistrate judge and the ALJ explained that Dr. Witt's short assessment was essentially a vocational determination and that disability determination is a legal question left to the province of the Commissioner, not a doctor. (Tr. 30); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(1), 416.927(d)(1) (“We are responsible for making the determination or decision about whether you meet the statutory definition of disability.”).

         The magistrate judge went on to explain that, while the ALJ acknowledged Dr. Witt was a treating physician, the ALJ explained that Dr. Witt's treatment records did not support the severity of the limitations she found and the conservative nature of Plaintiff's care over the years was inconsistent with Dr. Witt's opinions. (See M&R 7, 9-10 (citing Tr. 30)). The magistrate judge recited at length Dr. Witt's findings that substantially supported the ALJ's decision to give Dr. Witt's vocational conclusions little weight. (See M&R 8-10). As such, the Court finds that the ALJ properly considered and gave “little weight” to Dr. Witt's August 9, 2016 physical assessment. (See M&R 9). The ALJ also fulfilled his obligation of explaining why he gave the opinion of Dr. Witt little weight. This portion of Plaintiff's first objection is, therefore, overruled.

         2. The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion ...


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