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Doty v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

April 11, 2017



          Gina M. Groh, Judge

         On this day, the above-styled matter came before the Court for consideration of the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of United States Magistrate Judge James E. Seibert. Magistrate Judge Seibert issued his R&R [ECF 16] on September 18, 2014. In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Seibert recommends the Court grant the Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF No. 11] because the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision did not comply with the applicable law and regulations. Magistrate Judge Seibert further recommends the Court deny the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 13] and that this case be remanded to the agency for further analysis of the step three inquiry.

         I. Background

         The Plaintiff, Thomas Lee Doty, applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on May 15, 2012, alleging a disability beginning on December 17, 2008. ECF No. 7-2 at 13. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on August 1, 2012, and upon reconsideration on April 5, 2013. Id. The Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on September 29, 2014. Id. At the hearing, the Plaintiff was represented by Ambria Adkins. Id. Plaintiff testified during the hearing, as did a Vocational Expert (“VE”), Larry Ostrowski, Ph.D. Id. At the hearing, the Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to May 15, 2012. Id. On October 29, 2014, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Id. at 23. The Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied his request. Id. at 2.

         On April 5, 2016, the Plaintiff filed this action [ECF No. 1] for judicial review of an adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claims for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The Commissioner filed her Answer [ECF No. 6] on June 13, 2016. The Plaintiff then filed his Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF No. 11] on July 14, 2016. The Commissioner filed her Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 13] on August 3, 2016. Plaintiff filed a Response [ECF No. 16] on August 30, 2016.

         The Defendant timely filed her objections to the R&R [ECF No. 20] on March 20, 2017, and the Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition [ECF No. 21] on April 3, 2017.[1] The Defendant objects to Magistrate Judge Seibert's finding that the ALJ failed to perform an adequate step-three analysis. Specifically, the Defendant argues that the magistrate judge improperly determined there was ample evidence in the record to require a discussion of the Plaintiff's impairments and the Listings. The Defendant relies on Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168 (4th Cir. 1086), for the proposition that the “ALJ is only required to evaluate a listing when there is ample evidence in the record to support a determination that a listing could be met or equaled.” See ECF No. 20 at 5. The Defendant maintains that “the facts in this case do not remotely suggest that Plaintiff met or equaled any of the listed impairments” and therefore the ALJ's decision “provided sufficient articulation with respect to the listings criteria.” Id. at 2-3.

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Review of the R&R

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C), this Court must review de novo those portions of the magistrate judge's findings to which the Defendant objects. However, failure to file objections permits the district court to review the R&R under the standards that the district court believes are appropriate, and if parties do not object to an issue, the parties' right to de novo review is waived as to that issue. See Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citing Webb v. Califano, 468 F.Supp. 825 (E.D. Cal. 1979)). Therefore, this Court will conduct a de novo review only as to those portions of the R&R to which the Defendant objects and will review the remaining portions of the R&R for clear error.

         B. Review of the ALJ Decision

         The Social Security Act 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 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The phrase “supported by substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla” and “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” See Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (citing Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

         A reviewing court must not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, so long as that decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. Ultimately, it is the duty of the ALJ reviewing a case, not the responsibility of the Court, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) (“This Court does not find facts or try the case de novo when reviewing disability determinations.”); 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, and that it is the claimant who bears the risk of nonpersuasion.”).

         C. Evaluation Process

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ conducts a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ finds the claimant is disabled or not disabled at a certain step, the ALJ ...

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