United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division
JACKSON L. KISER, Senior District Judge.
Before me is the Report and Recommendation ("R & R") of the United States Magistrate Judge recommending that I grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Submission of Additional Evidence, and affirm the final decision of the Commissioner. The R & R was filed on October 31, 2014, and Plaintiff Woody John Newman ("Plaintiff") filed objections on November 17, 2014. The Commissioner responded on November 21, 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 objections, adopt the R & R of the Honorable Joel C. Hoppe in part, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and affirm the final decision of the Commissioner.
I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On May 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), and supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1395-1395ccc. (See R. 177-190.) In his application, Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since March 3, 2011, due to a combination of: low back pain, migraines, anxiety, burning and tingling in his feet, and depression. (R. 182.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims initially on August 10, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on November 1, 2011. (See R. 16;89-90; 104.)
On September 22, 2012, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney before Administrative Law Judge Marc Mates ("the ALJ"). (R. 16.) Vocational expert Gerald K. Wells and Plaintiff both testified at the hearing. (R. 39-55.) In a written decision dated November 5, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 19-30.) He found that Plaintiff has "degenerative disc disease status-post surgical intervention." (R. 21-22 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.152(c), 416.920(c)).) Although Plaintiff alleged disability due to anxiety, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's treatment notes "indicate that his affect has been essentially normal" while taking his prescribed Xanax. (R. 21.) As such, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's anxiety was nonsevere. (Id.) He found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination or impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 23 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).)
After consideration of the entire Record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), subject to the following limitations: (1) he cannot climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; (2) he cannot crawl; and (3) he must avoid even moderate exposure to vibrations or hazards. (R. 23.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff may, consistent with his limitations, occasionally climb ramps/stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch, and that his balance is not limited. (Id.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an order filler, a position that does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (R. 28.) Accordingly, he concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 29.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner on July 31, 2013. (R. 1-3.)
On September 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner. (Compl. [ECF No. 1].) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the case to the United States Magistrate Judge for consideration. Plaintiff and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., April 22, 2014 [ECF No. 17]; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., May 27, 2014 [ECF No. 19].) On October 31, 2014, Judge Hoppe filed his Report and Recommendation, recommending that I affirm the final decision of the Commissioner. (R & R, Oct. 31, 2014 [ECF No. 28].) On November 17, 2014, Plaintiff filed objections to the R & R. (Pl.'s Obj., Nov. 17, 2014 [ECF No. 29].) The Commissioner responded (Def.'s Resp. in Opp. to Pl.'s Obj., Nov. 21, 2014 [ECF No. 30]), and the matter is now ripe for review.
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 Secretary." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589).
A. The ALJ's credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence
Plaintiff first objects to Judge Hoppe's conclusion that the ALJ's holding that Plaintiff was not entirely credible was supported by substantial evidence. "Reviewing courts owe deference to factual findings, assessing them only to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. When factual findings rest upon credibility determinations, they should be accepted by the reviewing court absent exceptional circumstances.'" Eldeco, Inc. v. NLRB, 132 F.3d 1007, 1011 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting NLRB v. Air Products & Chemicals, Inc., 717 F.2d 141, 145 (1951)). "Exceptional circumstances include cases where a credibility determination is unreasonable, contradicts other findings of fact, or is based on an inadequate reason or no reason at all.'" Id. (quoting NLRB v. McCullough Environmental Servs., Inc., 5. F.3d 923, 928 (5th Cir. 1993)). Accord Bishop v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 583 F.Appx. 65, 68 (4th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ gave three reasons for not fully crediting Plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms. First, the ALJ noted, "Treatment records, including diagnostic studies, do not corroborate the severity of symptoms and limitations alleged." (R. 27.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's clinical findings "have also been suggestive of relatively minor abnormalities, overall, " and noted that Plaintiff's lack of deficiencies in a range of ...