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Minter v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 23, 2016

GARY JAMES MINTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court upon Gary Minter’s objections to the Report and Recommendation issued by Magistrate Judge Alan Kay on August 17, 2015. Minter seeks judicial review of a final decision issued by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his Title XVI application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The Magistrate Judge concluded that the Commissioner’s determination that Minter is not disabled was supported by substantial evidence and made under the appropriate legal standard. Magistrate Judge’s Report & Recommendation (“R&R”), ECF No. 17, at 1. He therefore recommended that Minter’s motion for reversal or, in the alternative, for remand be denied and that the Commissioner’s motion for affirmance be granted. Id. at 33.

The Magistrate Judge’s report explained that “any party who objects to the Report and Recommendation must file a written objection thereto with the Clerk of this Court within 14 days of the party’s receipt of [it]” and “advised that failure to timely file objections to the findings and recommendations set forth in th[e] report may waive the[] right of appeal from an order of the District Court that adopts such findings and recommendation.” Id. (citing Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 147-48 (1985)). Upon consideration of the record, and hearing no objection from Minter, the Court issued an order on September 3, 2015 adopting the Report and Recommendation with one minor typographical correction. On September 11, 2015, Minter moved the Court to vacate its order, explaining that his counsel had, “through good faith belief and by inadvertent mistake, ” miscalculated the amount of time he had to file an objection. Pl.’s Mot. Vacate, ECF No. 19, at 1. The Court granted Minter’s motion so that it could consider his late-filed objections. See Order of Oct. 16, 2015.

Minter objects to the Report and Recommendation in two respects. First, he claims that the Magistrate Judge misapplied the so-called treating-physician rule, which prohibits an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) from rejecting opinions offered by a social security benefits claimant’s treating physician without explaining his reasons for doing so. Pl.’s Objections to Magistrate Judge’s Report & Recommendation (“Pl.’s Objections”) 2. The Court agrees that the ALJ and Appeals Council did not properly consider the opinions of Minter’s treating physician. Because the determination at the third step of the disability evaluation process may have differed had those opinions been afforded substantial weight, any error is not harmless and remand is appropriate. Second, Minter claims that the Magistrate Judge “erred in adopting the Commissioner’s position that . . . additional evidence presented to the [SSA] Appeals Council was irrelevant under the applicable statutes.” Id. The Court finds, however, that the Appeals Council did consider the additional evidence Minter references-records stemming from the North Carolina state retirement system-and properly discounted that evidence given its marginal probative value. Remand on that basis is therefore inappropriate. As a result, the Court will adopt in part the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation. It will grant in part Minter’s motion and remand the case with instructions to afford appropriate weight to the opinions of Minter’s treating physician in determining whether Minter’s impairments meet or medically equal Listing 12.04, and it will deny the Commissioner’s motion for affirmance. The Court will also adopt the findings and reasoning in the Magistrate Judge’s report except as indicated in the discussion below.

I. Background

The factual background of this matter is fully set forth in the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation. See R&R 2-7. In brief, Minter-a Duke University graduate and former analyst and field worker for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services-filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 14, 2010, claiming that he had been disabled as a result of major depressive disorder since January 2009. R&R 6. For over a year prior to filing his applications, Minter had been living in a Raleigh, North Carolina motel, where he “spent the majority of his days in his room.” R&R 3. “This living arrangement ultimately depleted [Minter’s] life savings, however, and he became homeless in late 2010.” Id. The following spring, Minter moved to Washington, D.C. Although unemployed, Minter sold the “Street Sense” newspaper for “roughly 10-15 hours per week, ” id. at 4, and was able to engage in everyday activities such as taking public transportation, doing his laundry, and shopping in stores, id. at 5-6.

Minter was not receiving mental-health treatment when he filed his applications. A decade earlier, however, he had been treated for bipolar disorder and received short-term disability benefits from the State of North Carolina. Id. at 2. He was also diagnosed with depression in 2008 by a doctor in China, where Minter was working for a time as an English teacher. Id. After filing his applications, Minter received psychiatric treatment from two community-health clinics serving the homeless and, in December 2012, was diagnosed by Dr. Ronald Koshes, a psychiatrist affiliated with Georgetown University, with “Major Depressive Disorder, Severe, Recurrent, with Psychotic features.” Id. at 6.

The SSA denied both of Minter’s applications on the written record. An ALJ confirmed the denial following an administrative hearing, and the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ’s decision after receiving additional comments and evidence from Minter. Id. at 6-7. Minter timely filed this suit on May 27, 2014.

II. Standard of Review

Local Civil Rule 72.3(c), based on 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), requires “[a] district judge [to] make a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations to which objection is made.” A district judge is not required, however, to review those portions of a magistrate judge’s report not objected to. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985) (“It does not appear that Congress intended to require district court review of a magistrate’s factual or legal conclusions, under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings.”). The district 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)(C).

“Pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, district courts review decisions of the SSA Commissioner, made through the ALJ [or Appeals Council], to determine whether [her] findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Porter v. Colvin, 951 F.Supp.2d 125, 129 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). The Court must uphold the Commissioner’s determination if it is not tainted by an error of law and is supported by substantial evidence, Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987), “mean[ing] such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Fla. Gas Transmission Co. v. FERC, 604 F.3d 636, 645 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (describing substantial evidence as “more than a scintilla, but . . . something less than a preponderance of the evidence”) (quoting FPL Energy Me. Hydro LLC v. FERC, 287 F.3d 1151, 1160 (D.C. Cir. 2002)). The Court must afford “‘considerable deference’ to decisions rendered by the ALJ and Appeals Council; nevertheless, [it] ‘remains obligated to ensure that any decision rests upon substantial evidence.’” Porter, 951 F.Supp.2d at 129 (quoting Davis v. Shalala, 862 F.Supp. 1, 4 (D.D.C. 1994)).

It is also incumbent upon the Court to assess “whether the Commissioner . . . ‘has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight [s]he has given to obviously probative exhibits.’” Lane-Rauth v. Barnhart, 437 F.Supp.2d 63, 65 (D.D.C. 2006) (quoting Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004)). The ALJ is “entitled to weigh conflicting opinions and to make his own assessment of their credibility, ” Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986), but “cannot merely disregard evidence which does not support his conclusion, ” Martin v. Apfel, 118 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2000). Although “the broad purposes of the Social Security Act require a liberal construction in favor of disability, ” Davis, 862 F.Supp. at 4, the Court “is not permitted to re-weigh the evidence and reach its own determination, ” Maynor v. Heckler, 597 F.Supp. 457, 460 (D.D.C. 1984).

III. Analysis

Minter objects to two aspects of the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation. First, Minter contends that the Appeals Council found irrelevant and inappropriately disregarded additional evidence that he provided to it in the form of records from the North Carolina state retirement system. As a result, Minter argues, the Magistrate Judge “erred in holding that the Appeals Council’s . . . treatment of this additional evidence was supported by substantial evidence.” Pl.’s Objections 2. Second, Minter claims that the ALJ improperly rejected, without explanation, the opinion of Minter’s treating physician, Dr. Koshes-specifically, his opinion regarding Minter’s difficulties in social functioning. The Magistrate Judge’s acceptance of the ...


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