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Walchli v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

March 7, 2018

ROBERT GEORGE WALCHI, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA

         This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying the Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. By Standing Order (Document 4) entered on February 6, 2016, this matter was referred to the Honorable Dwane L. Tinsley, United States Magistrate Judge, for findings of fact and recommendations for disposition. On February 2, 2018, Judge Tinsley submitted his Proposed Findings and Recommendations (PF&R) (Document 14), recommending that the Court grant the Plaintiff's brief in support of complaint and motion for remand, reverse the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and remand this case for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), order the ALJ to use a medical advisor pursuant to SSR 83-20 and dismiss this matter from the Court's docket.

         The Court has reviewed the Defendant's Objections to the Proposed Findings and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge (Document 15) and the Plaintiff's Response to the Defendant's Objections to the Proposed Findings and Recommendations of the United States Magistrate Judge (Document 16). The Court has also reviewed the original briefing, the administrative record (Document 11 and attachments), and the PF&R. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the objections should be overruled.

         The Claimant, Robert George Walchi, filed an application for DIB on May 10, 2013, and for SSI on June 18, 2013, asserting that his disability began on January 1, 2008. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Jeffrey J. Schueler, held a hearing on January 27, 2015, and a supplemental hearing on July 27, 2015. The ALJ issued a decision on August 4, 2015, finding that Mr. Walchi was disabled beginning May 31, 2013. Mr. Walchi requested review as to the finding that he was not disabled prior to May 31, 2013, and the Appeals Council denied review. Mr. Walchi filed this suit to seek review of the finding regarding the onset date of his disability and the resulting denial of DIB.

         Mr. Walchi was born on October 3, 1957. He has a high school diploma. He worked as a farm hand in the past, but has not worked since 2008. He reported that he stopped working due to his back pain. Mr. Walchi reported that he had suffered back problems for ten or fifteen years, and reinjured his back when he slipped on ice in February, 2013. Mr. Walchi lacked health insurance and did not seek medical treatment until May 31, 2013. Based on medical records beginning in May 2013, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Walchi suffered from osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine. The record includes evidence from medical providers stating that Mr. Walchi's back problems substantially pre-date the beginning of his treatment. However, the ALJ concluded that there was not sufficient medical evidence to substantiate an earlier onset date. Because Mr. Walchi's disability insurance ended on December 31, 2012 (his date last insured, or DLI), the ALJ denied his application for DIB.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         Disability under the SSA is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential inquiry to determine eligibility for social security disability benefits.

         If a claimant is determined not to be disabled at one step, the evaluation does not proceed to the next step. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653-54 (4th Cir. 2005)). The Fourth Circuit has summarized the five-step process as follows:

the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work.” Id. at 635(citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). If the claimant is able to perform his or her past work, the ALJ can find the claimant not to be disabled. Id. If the claimant is not able to perform his or her past work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, where “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that ‘exists in significant numbers in the national economy, ' considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to conduct a de novo review upon the record of any portion of the proposed findings and recommendations to which written objections have been made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Conversely, a district court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the findings or recommendation to which no objections are addressed. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985); see also Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983) (holding that districts courts may adopt proposed findings and recommendations without explanation in the absence of objections). A district court judge may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (2006). A district court's authority to choose among these options is independent of the statutory duty to afford review to those portions to which objections are addressed. See Camby, 718 F.2d at 199-200 (“If no objections were made, for example, it could hardly be argued that the judge must accept the [magistrate judge's] report if it contained an error of law apparent on its face.”). As such, it is wholly within the district court's discretion to accept, reject, or modify a magistrate judge's proposal irrespective of any objections by the parties. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980). Running parallel with district courts' discretion under the Federal Magistrates Act is the responsibility to ensure the just disposition of matters referred to magistrate judges. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 271 (1976); see also Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 683.

         Section 405(g) of the SSA provides, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “When examining an SSA disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964) (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). In making its determination, the Court must look to “the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the Secretary's findings, ...


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