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Farris v. Berryhill

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

May 11, 2018

MELVA SHUTTS FARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH R. GOODWIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This action was referred to the Honorable Omar J. Aboulhosn, United States Magistrate Judge, for submission to this court of proposed findings of fact and recommendation for disposition, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Judge Aboulhosn submitted his Proposed Findings and Recommendation [ECF No. 15] (“PF&R”) and recommended that the court grant the plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings to the extent that this matter be remanded back to the Commissioner, deny the defendant's request for judgment on the pleadings, reverse the final decision of the Commissioner, and remand this matter back to the Commissioner. The defendant filed timely Objections [ECF No. 16] to the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendation, and the plaintiff filed a Response [ECF No. 17].

         The court has reviewed de novo those portions of the Magistrate Judge's PF&R to which the defendant objects and finds that the objections lack merit. For the reasons set forth below, the court OVERRULES the defendant's objections and ADOPTS and incorporates herein the findings and recommendation of the Magistrate Judge [ECF No. 15]. The court GRANTS the plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings as articulated in her Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF No. 12] to the extent that this matter be remanded back to the Commissioner, DENIES the defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings as articulated in her Brief in Support of Judgment of Defendant's Decision [ECF No. 13], REVERSES the final decision of the Commissioner, and REMANDS this action back to the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         The plaintiff, Melva Shutts Farris, filed her application for Title II benefits on June 4, 2013, alleging disability since April 22, 2013, because of Addison's disease, depression, spinal stenosis (lower back), sciatica, steroid induced psychosis, suspicious glaucoma, diabetes insipidus, hypoparathyroidism, pituitary tumor surgery, Grave's disease, and adult growth hormone. PF&R 2. The plaintiff's claim was initially denied on November 12, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on April 21, 2014. Id. An administrative hearing was held on January 5, 2016, and thereafter the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) entered an unfavorable decision. Id. On March 30, 2016, the plaintiff sought review by the Appeal's Council. Id. On January 31, 2017, the ALJ's decision became final when the Appeal's Council denied the plaintiff's request. Id. On March 28, 2017, the plaintiff timely brought this action seeking judicial review of the administrative decision. Compl. [ECF No. 1]. On October 23, 2017, Judge Aboulhosn submitted a PF&R recommending that the case be remanded back to the Commissioner because the Commissioner, through the ALJ, failed to explain the weight given to one of the plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Milhoan. PF&R 21-24.

         II. Standards of Review 3

         a. Proposed Findings of Fact and Recommendations

         A district court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). This court is not, however, 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. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). In addition, this court need not conduct a de novo review when a party “makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the Court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.”Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir.1982).

         b. Social Security Appeals

         The Social Security Act states that “[t]he 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). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Further, “[i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

         In reviewing the case for substantial evidence, the court does not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make determinations as to credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hays v. Su livan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Rather, the court must adopt the Commissioner's findings if there is evidence in support of such findings “to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury.” Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ).” Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987). Thus, even if the court would have reached a different decision, it must nonetheless defer to the conclusions of the ALJ if such conclusions are bolstered by substantial evidence and were reached through a correct application of relevant law. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         III. Analysis

         The defendant submitted two objections to the PF&R. First the defendant argues that the PF&R “reweighed the evidence and failed to recognize not only the substantial evidence, but the overwhelming evidence regarding [the plaintiff's] lack of fatigue in finding that remand was warranted for further consideration of Dr. Milhoan's ‘opinion' regarding his assessment of [the] plaintiff's fatigue as caused by Seroquel.” Def.'s Objs. to R. & R. 2. Second, the defendant argues that the PF&R “erroneously characterized Dr. Milhoan's statement regarding the disabling effect of Seroquel as ‘opinion evidence' entitled to an assignment of weight.” Id. at 8.

         Dr. Milhoan completed a Treating Physician or Direct Care Provider Form for the Disability Determination Service in which he stated that the plaintiff was taking Seroquel which was very sedating, and concluded that ...


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