United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division
July 28, 2014
PHYLLIS A. ADKINS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Defendant.
JACKSON L. KISER, District Judge.
Before me is the Report and Recommendation ("R & R") of the United States Magistrate Judge recommending that I deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and dismiss this case. The R & R was filed on June 20, 2014, and Plaintiff Phyllis A. Adkins ("Plaintiff") filed a timely Objection on July 3, 2014. The Commissioner filed her Response on July 7, 2014, and the matter is now ripe for review. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2). After careful review and consideration, and for the reasons stated below, I will overrule Plaintiff's Objection, adopt the R & R of the Honorable Joel C. Hoppe, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and dismiss this case from the active docket of the Court.
I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On August 31, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). (R. at 49, 122-25); see 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (2014). At the time of her application, Plaintiff was 49 years old, had a 12th grade education, and had worked for many years as a factory laborer. (R. at 26, 42, 50.) Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since May 30, 2010, due to a combination of shingles, knots in her hands, fibromyalgia, pain in the left side of her body, and anxiety attacks. (R. at 50.) Later in the application process, however, Plaintiff clarified that she was laid off from her job in May 2010. (R. at 39, 264.) Based on the medical records available at the time, a state agency concluded that her condition was "not severe enough to be considered disabling, " and denied Plaintiff's application in October 2010 and March 2011. (R. at 54, 60.)
On January 5, 2012,  Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared before Administrative Law Judge Marc Mates ("the ALJ"). (R. at 21-48.) Vocational expert Robert Jackson ("the VE") also testified at the hearing. (R. at 13, 39-47.) In a written decision dated January 27, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 13-20.) He found that Plaintiff's neck and back difficulty, fibromyalgia, and non-dominant left shoulder impingement were "severe impairments." (R. at 15.) The ALJ determined that all other alleged impairments were non-severe, however, because they did not exist for a continuous period of twelve months, were responsive to medication, did not require significant medical treatment, or did not result in any continuous exertional or non-exertional functional limitations. ( Id. ) He also found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).)
After consideration of the entire Record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), subject to the limitations that she: (1) could not engage in left (non-dominant) arm overhead reaching; (2) could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and (3) must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. (R. at 16-19.) He found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms credible only to the extent they were consistent with his assessment of her RFC, and noted some inconsistencies in Plaintiff's allegations. (R. at 17, 18.) Due to her limitations, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. at 19.) In light of her age, education, work experience, and RFC, and based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, he concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. at 20.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 11, 2013. (R. at 1-4.)
On May 31, 2013, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner. (Compl. [ECF No. 3].) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe for consideration. (Order, Feb. 24, 2014 [ECF No. 20].) Plaintiff and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., Dec. 6, 2013 [ECF No. 14]; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Jan. 13, 2014 [ECF No. 18].) On June 20, 2014, Judge Hoppe filed his Report and Recommendation, recommending that I affirm the final decision of the Commissioner. (R & R, June 20, 2014 [ECF No. 24].) On July 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed a timely Objection to the R & R. (Pl.'s Obj., July 3, 2014 [ECF No. 25].) The Commissioner filed her Response on July 7, 2014, and the matter is now ripe for review. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Obj., July 7, 2014 [ECF No. 26].)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Congress has limited the judicial review I may exercise over decisions of the Social Security Commissioner. I am required to uphold the decision where: (1) the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2014); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The Fourth Circuit has long defined substantial evidence as "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) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In other words, the substantial evidence standard is satisfied by producing more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).
The Commissioner is charged with 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 (2014); see Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 990 (4th Cir. 1984) (noting that it is the role of the ALJ, not the vocational expert, to determine disability). The Regulations grant the Commissioner latitude in resolving factual inconsistencies that may arise during the evaluation of the evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927 (2014). Unless the decision lacks substantial evidence to support it, the ultimate determination of whether a claimant is disabled is for the ALJ and the Commissioner. See id. §§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(e); Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987). If the ALJ's resolution of the conflicts in the evidence is supported by substantial evidence, then I must affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. In reviewing the evidence, I must not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [my] judgment for that of the Secr0etary." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589).
This Court reviews de novo any portion of the Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party objects. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The majority of Plaintiff's Objection, however, simply reiterates arguments made to the Magistrate Judge in support of her Motion for Summary Judgment. ( Compare Pl.'s Br. 12-13 [ECF No. 15], with Pl.'s Obj. 1-2.) Although I consider such recycled arguments to be improper,  I will address each of Plaintiff's objections in turn.
A. The Opinions of Physical Therapist Brandy Wilson
On January 4, 2012, Plaintiff presented to physical therapist Brandy Wilson of Rehab Associates of Central Virginia for an initial evaluation of her functional capacity. (R. at 18, 264-68.) According to the ALJ, the evaluation "endorsed that [Plaintiff] had decreased range of motion preventing full functional activity and decreased strength limiting functional activities." (R. at 18.) Although he found that the report "indicates reduced active range of motion of the cervical and lumbar spines, " he noted that "muscle testing was generally 4/5 and [Plaintiff] had intact sensation and symmetric reflexes." ( Id. ) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to expressly weigh the physical therapist's opinion regarding her functional limitations; and (2) not giving greater weight to her opinion. ( See Pl.'s Obj. 1-2.)
Social Security regulations distinguish between "acceptable medical sources" and other health care providers, including therapists. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513 (2014). Only "acceptable medical sources" can provide medical opinions and be considered treating sources whose medical opinions may be entitled to controlling weight. SSR 06-03P, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2 (Aug. 9, 2006) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 404.1527(a)(2), 404.1502, 404.1527(d)). Other medical sources, on the other hand, can provide evidence to show the severity of an impairment, and how it affects an individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d); SSR 06-03P, at *2. As a general rule, the ALJ must consider the opinions of non-acceptable medical sources as he would any other relevant evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 404.1527(b) (2014). These opinions are not, however, entitled to any particular weight. SSR 06-03P, at *4-5. Further, the ALJ is not required to explain the weight given to such opinions unless it might affect the outcome of the case.
After careful consideration of the Record, I find nothing to suggest that the opinion of Plaintiff's physical therapist might affect the outcome of her case. After a single evaluation, Ms. Wilson noted that Plaintiff was a "moderate fall risk, " and opined that due to the chronicity of her pain and stiffness "she will be limited in her functioning." (R. at 267.) Ms. Wilson's opinion is vague and fails to provide any specific limitations with respect to Plaintiff's ability to sit, stand, walk, stoop, bend, crawl, kneel, lift, or perform any other activity. Although Plaintiff argues that Ms. Wilson's functional evaluation "documents that [P]laintiff has multiple limitations impacting her functioning, which prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful employment, " she fails to point out the specific limitations to which she refers. (Pl.'s Obj. 2.) Accordingly, I find that the ALJ's consideration of Ms. Wilson's opinion was more than adequate, and I will overrule Plaintiff's Objection.
B. The ALJ's Assessment of Plaintiff's Credibility
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by improperly assessing Plaintiff's credibility. In its entirety, however, Plaintiff's argument consists of the following:
The [R & R] erroneously concludes that the ALJ properly assessed [P]laintiff's credibility. The ALJ's reasons for finding [P]laintiff less than fully credible are not supported by substantial evidence. The [R & R]'s conclusion that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that the record contained inconsistencies in [P]laintiff's allegations is in error.
(Obj. 2.) Pursuant to Rule 72(b)(2), "a party may serve and file specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2) (emphasis added). "[A] judge of the 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) (2014) (emphasis added). A general objection to the proposed findings and recommendations of a magistrate judge, on the other hand, has the same effect as no objection at all. In the absence of any substantive argument to support her conclusion, I find that Plaintiff fails to raise a proper written objection. Accordingly, Plaintiff is not entitled to de novo review of the issue, and I will overrule Plaintiff's Objection.
For the foregoing reasons, I find that substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. I have reviewed the remainder of the Record for clear error and, finding none, I will overrule Plaintiff's Objection, adopt the R & R of the Honorable Joel C. Hoppe, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and dismiss this case from the active docket of the Court.
The Clerk is directed to send a copy of this Memorandum Opinion and the accompanying Order to all counsel of record as well as to Magistrate Judge Hoppe.