Plaintiff brought this action to appeal the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the matter to United States Magistrate Judge B. Waugh Crigler for a recommended disposition. Upon review of the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, (docket nos. 9 and 11), the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation, concluding that Commissioner's final decision should be affirmed, and that summary judgment should be entered accordingly (docket no. 13). Plaintiff then filed objections, which are now pending before the court (docket no. 14). For the reasons given below, I will adopt the report and recommendation and grant summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on May 2, 2006. After two hearings on the matter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), issued a decision on January 15, 2008, concluding that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from a "severe impairment" under the standard set forth in Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012 (4th Cir. 1984), stemming from "fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain, irritable bowel symptoms, and headaches. . . ." (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R.", at 23). However, he nonetheless concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because she had sufficient residual functional capacity to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including "light occupations" such as counter clerk, cashier, companion, and office clerk (R. at 34). As the Appeals Council has denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's determination stands as the Commissioner's final decision.
Plaintiff argued before the magistrate judge that the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding was erroneous because it relied "entirely on the testimony of the medical expert," Charles L. Cooke, M.D. ("Dr. Cooke"), which itself was based "exclusively on the objective medical evidence." Pls. Br. at 10. In effect, Plaintiff posited that this reliance caused the ALJ to overlook the Plaintiff's reports of debilitating pain. While the Commissioner may not dismiss a disability claim merely because there is no objective medical evidence of pain, there is "a fundamental difference between objective evidence of pain (which is not required) and objective evidence of a medical condition which could cause the pain alleged (which is)." Craig v. Charter, 76 F.3d 585, 594-595 (4th Cir. 1996). Thus, the Commissioner must determine first whether "an underlying impairment capable of causing pain is shown," and then whether "subjective evidence of the pain, its intensity or degree . . . support[s] a finding of disability." Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 564 (4th Cir. 2006); Soc. Sec. R. 96-7p.
As the magistrate judge noted, although the ALJ determined that the objective evidence showed that Plaintiff's impairments could produce the alleged symptoms, he nonetheless found that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects were "not entirely credible." (R. at 30). Because the ALJ followed the very analysis prescribed in Hines and Social Security Ruling 96-7p, Plaintiff's original theory on appeal is without any basis, and the magistrate judge was correct to so find.
Plaintiff now objects that the magistrate judge was wrong to conclude:
(1) that that the ALJ's credibility analysis was proper,*fn1
and (2) that Dr. Cooke's testimony is consistent with a
finding of no disability. I must consider these objections de novo. 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
A district court must uphold the ALJ's decision unless it was reached using an incorrect legal standard, or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Credibility determinations are entitled to particular deference. "Because he had the opportunity to observe the demeanor and to determine the credibility of the claimant, the ALJ's observations concerning these questions are to be given great weight." Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). However, the ALJ may not reject the Plaintiff's claims on whim or caprice, but must "give specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's statements." Soc. Sec. R. 96-7p. The magistrate judge concluded that the ALJ complied with this mandate:
[H]e provided a lengthy factual rationale supporting his finding that plaintiffs statements were "not entirely credible." That rationale included evidence . . . that there was symptoms magnification. Specifically, he noted that a physician reported that plaintiff was rejecting recommendations that could help her get better. The Law Judge also noted that a functional capacity evaluation revealed that plaintiffs symptoms did not correspond to any dermatomal or myotome pattern of weakness and that nine out of sixteen indicators were positive on the Waddell's test. Additionally, the Law Judge found that there were inconsistencies in plaintiff's statements which detracted from her credibility. For instance, although she alleged an inability to work in 1996, she continued to work well beyond this time. The Law Judge's finding that plaintiff was "not entirely credible" is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff now raises challenges to each of the above categories of evidence.
First, Plaintiff avers that the ALJ failed to follow applicable legal standards in interpreting her refusal to follow treatment recommendations. Pls. Br. at 3. Social Security Ruling 96-7p provides that: the adjudicator must not draw any inferences about an individual's symptoms and their functional effects from a failure to seek or pursue regular medical treatment without first considering any explanations that the individual may provide, or other information in the case record, that may explain infrequent or irregular medical visits or failure to seek medical treatment. . . . The explanations provided by the individual may provide insight into the individual's credibility.
In light of the above, it is clear that the ALJ's analysis was not perfect. For instance, he noted, with none of the required explanation, that an August 31, 1998 doctor's note showed that Plaintiff was rejecting treatment recommendations. (R. at 31). But this imperfect analysis does not undermine the ALJ's conclusions entirely. It bears noting that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's expressed desire to forego wearing an ankle brace because of its "cosmetic" appearance. (R. 31, 487). It was reasonable to conclude that ...