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Hoag v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

September 30, 2014

KELLY HOAG, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES R. SPENCER, Senior District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Kelly Hoag's objections to Judge Novak's Report and Recommendation (R&R) affirming the Social Security Administration's denial of an application for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income payments ("Objs. to R&R") (ECF No. 17). The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (Carolyn Colvin) decision to deny benefits was based on a finding by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT") who determined that Hoag is not disabled according to the Social Security Act. Judge Novak recommends that the Court DENY Hoag's Motion for Summary Judgment, GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and AFFIRM Colvin's decision denying benefits to Hoag.

Hoag's objections to the R & R are (1) the assessment of the opinions of the treating Rheumatologist; and (2) the assessment of the ALJ's credibility analysis. For the reasons set forth below, the Court OVERRULES Hoag's objections and ADOPTS Judge Novak's R&R.

I. BACKGROUND

There is a five-step analysis conducted for the Commissioner by an ALJ to determine if a claimant is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520. The ALJ considers whether an applicant (1) is performing "substantial gainful activity"; (2) is severely impaired; (3) has an impairment that is at least as severe as one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1; (4) could continue performing work that he did in the past; and (5) could perform any other job in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.905, 416.920; see Rogers v. Barnhart, 216 F.App'x 345, 347-48 (4th Cir. 2007). If, at any step of that analysis, the ALJ is able to determine that the applicant is disabled, the inquiry must stop. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

In this case, the ALJ found that Hoag is not disabled at step five of the analysis. He found that (1) Hoag had not performed substantial gainful activity; (2) Hoag suffered the severe impairments of Rheumatoid Arthritis ("RA") and depression; (3) the impairments did not meet any of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1; (4) Hoag had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with certain limitations, but could not perform any of her past relevant work. However, at step five of the analysis, the ALJ found that, based upon vocational expert ("VE") testimony and considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Hoag could perform. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Hoag was not disabled under the Act.

The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court. (R. at 3). Hoag appealed this determination, arguing that (1) the ALJ failed to accord Hoag's treating physician controlling weight, and (2) the ALT incorrectly assessed Hoag's credibility and, as a result, erred in determining Hoag's RFC. Judge Novak subsequently found that (1) substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision to afford less than controlling weight to Hoag's treating physician's opinion, and (2) the ALT did not err in assessing Plaintiffs credibility. The R&R agrees with the Commissioner's determination and recommends that the Court DENY Hoag's Motion for Summary Judgment, GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and AFFIRM the decision denying benefits to Plaintiff.

Hoag now objects to the R&R alleging that (1) the type of analysis engaged in by the R&R with respect to the assessment of the opinions of the treating Rheumatologist (Dr. Rosalia Lomeo, M.D.) is beyond the scope of review by this Court; and (2) the R&R and ALJ improperly assessed Hoag's credibility. Hoag also incorporates in her objections, the arguments set forth in her "initial memorandum"[1] (pp. 22-27) as to why the specific, discrete reasons set forth with regards to Dr. Lomeo's credibility in the ALJ's decision are not supported by substantial evidence.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court may review a denial of benefits by the Commissioner, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), but it must accept the Commissioner's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached by applying the correct legal standard. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F"3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006) (stating that a court must apply that standard to findings of fact by an AL I). The "substantial evidence" standard is more demanding than the "scintilla" standard, but less demanding than the "preponderance" standard. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). Thus, a finding is supported by "substantial evidence" if it is based on "relevant evidence [that] a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). And, if "conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, " the Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision. Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In determining whether a decision satisfies that standard, the Court may not weigh conflicting evidence, evaluate the credibility of evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's findings. Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (citation omitted).

A court reviews any portion of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation that has been properly objected to de novo. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In order to properly object, a party must object "with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground for the objection." United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007).

III. ANALYSIS

Hoag's present objections do not simply restate previously made arguments; rather, she objects to specific determinations made by Judge Novak. Therefore, Hoag has objected with sufficient specificity to warrant de novo review. See Midgette, 478 F.3d at 622.

A. Judge Novak properly concluded that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to afford less than controlling ...


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