United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
DAVID A. HULLENDER, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
COGBURN JR. UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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.
Plaintiff's First Objection
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.
The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion of Dr.
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.
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. §
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 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.”).
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,
The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion ...