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Mary Casillas v. Memorandum Opinion Michael J. Astrue

February 3, 2011

MARY CASILLAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Norman K. Moon

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the court on consideration of the following: the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (docket nos. 7 and 10); the Report and Recommendation ("Report") of United States Magistrate Judge B. Waugh Crigler (docket no. 12); Plaintiff's objections (docket no. 13) to the Report; and the response (docket no. 14) thereto filed by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner," or "Defendant").

In his Report, the magistrate judge recommends that I affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Report, obligating the court to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the Report to which objections were made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 48 (4th Cir. 1982). Having conducted such a review, I find that the objections are without merit and that the magistrate judge was correct in finding that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and that Plaintiff did not meet her burden of establishing that she was totally disabled from all forms of substantial gainful employment. Accordingly, for the reasons stated herein, I will overrule Plaintiff's objections and will adopt the magistrate judge's Report in toto.

I.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe impairment -- a disorder of the spine -- but determined that Plaintiff was not disabled on or before March 31, 2007, because the disorder did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. Although Plaintiff had experienced a flare-up of symptoms in January 2007, later that month her chiropractor noted that she had already experienced "improvement in her lumbar symptoms, with 80% reduction in her overall pain level," and her condition improved significantly with treatment during the next 12 months. The radiographic evidence confirmed significant physiological improvement: at the onset of her symptoms in January 2007, an MRI showed disc protrusion that was deflecting the traversing right S1 nerve; however, a subsequent MRI study seven months later, in August 2007, confirmed "internal improvement of the previously identified" disc protrusion so that the right S1 nerve root "no longer appears deflected."

Plaintiff claims she is disabled by back pain. She protectively filed her claim for disability insurance benefits on March 19, 2007, and resubmitted her claim on August 20, 2007. Plaintiff was born in 1968, and she was 38 years old on the date she was last insured; thus, she is defined as a "younger individual age 18-49." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. The time period pertinent to this appeal is quite brief: Plaintiff alleged a "spontaneous and sudden" onset of back pain on January 5, 2007, and her disability insurance expired shortly thereafter, on March 31, 2007. The Agency denied Plaintiff's application on October 9, 2007, and denied her request for reconsideration on January 2, 2008. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (the "ALJ"), which was held on January 28, 2009. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. The question before the ALJ was whether, no later than March 31, 2007, Plaintiff became so disabled that she was unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . 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 ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet any of the listings of impairments and that she remained capable of work at the light level with a sit/stand option. The ALJ found that Plaintiff remained capable of light work, except that she could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or work around hazards such as unprotected heights, and that Plaintiff required a sit/stand option to change positions as needed. Based on testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work as a cafeteria worker or a tape rental clerk, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers within the national economy that Plaintiff remained capable of performing. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled.

Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on September 23, 2009, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed the instant civil action, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Crigler for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition.

Plaintiff argued to Magistrate Judge Crigler that she was categorically entitled to benefits because she met the Listings of Impairments for musculoskeletal disorders under Listing 1.04(A). 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I, Section 1.04(A). Listing 1.04(A) addresses nerve root compression. The record includes MRI documentation that shows that, by August 2007, any previously identified nerve root compression had been largely alleviated. Listing 1.04(A) also requires medical evidence of a host of additional medical findings, e.g., evidence of motor loss. In Plaintiff's case, however, physical examinations demonstrated that, at the time the MRI confirmed alleviation of the previously deflected nerve root, Plaintiff had full motor power, with a rating of 5 out of 5 bilaterally. Listing 1.04(A) also categorically requires medical evidence of limitation of motion; in this case, some physical examinations throughout 2007 demonstrated mildly restricted motion, while others demonstrated "full extension, full flexion, [and] normal rotation" of the back. Accordingly, the medical treatment records demonstrate that Listing 1.04(A) does not apply to Plaintiff.

The record shows that Plaintiff failed to present an opinion from any treating physician to support her contention that she meets a listing or is otherwise disabled. Plaintiff's chiropractor noted only that Plaintiff should avoid jobs involving "heavy lifting, prolong[ed] sitting and or standing on a hard surface for an extended period of time," which comports fully with the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff could perform light work with a sit-stand option that would allow her to change positions as needed. State agency reviewing physicians concurred that Plaintiff was capable of working at the light level of exertion. The record in this case contains not a single contrary medical opinion.

After the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Crigler issued his Report, concluding that the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence in the record, and Plaintiff timely filed objections.

II.

The Commissioner's factual findings must be upheld if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion," Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted), and 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).

The Commissioner is responsible for evaluating the medical evidence and assessing symptoms, signs, and findings to determine the functional capacity of the claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527--404.1545. Any conflicts in the evidence are to be resolved by the Commissioner (or his designate, the ALJ), not the courts, and it is immaterial whether the evidence will permit a conclusion inconsistent with that of the ALJ. Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964). The court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Instead, the court may only consider whether the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. However, determining whether the evidence presented by the ALJ to support his decision amounts to substantial evidence is a question of law, and therefore will be considered anew. Hicks v. Heckler, 756 F.2d 1022, 1024-25 (4th Cir. 1985) (abrogated on other grounds by Lively v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 177, 180 (4th Cir. 1988). Furthermore, "ALJs have a duty to analyze 'all of the relevant evidence' and to provide a sufficient explanation for their 'rationale in crediting certain evidence.'" Bill Branch Coal Corp. v. Sparks, 213 F.3d 186, 190 (4th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 permits a party to submit objections to a magistrate judge's ruling to the district court within fourteen days of the order. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). The district court conducts a de novo review of those portions of a magistrate's report and recommendation to which objections "properly" were made. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); Orpiano, 687 F.2d at 48. General objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, reiterating arguments already presented, are not "properly" made, as they lack the specificity required by Rule 72 and have the ...


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