United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.
This matter is before me on the parties' motions for summary judgment, the Report & Recommendation ("R&R") of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou, and Plaintiff's objections thereto. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred this matter to the Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. The Magistrate Judge filed his R&R, advising that I should deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff timely filed her objections, obligating me to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which proper objections were made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Farmer v. McBride, 177 F.Appx. 327, 330 (4th Cir. 2006). For the following reasons, I will overrule Plaintiff's objections and adopt the Magistrate Judge's R&R in full.
On October 8, 2010, Plaintiff Karen Michelle Jones ("Plaintiff" or "Jones") filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") payments under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff's last insured date was September 30, 1996, and thus to receive DIB benefits, she must show that her disability began before that date and existed for twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a).
Plaintiff was first diagnosed with Crohn's disease in August 1996. Plaintiff claims that her disability began prior to this point, as she allegedly experienced significant symptoms of the disease well before she was officially diagnosed. She alleges that these symptoms were disabling and constituted a severe impairment, causing extreme pain and fatigue, which often confined her to bed rest.
A. The ALJ's Decision
The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review, and on July 26, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's disability claim. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing, which included testimony from Plaintiff as well as a vocational expert ("VE"). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she is disabled and unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of her Crohn's disease. On August 13, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision denying Plaintiff's claim.
Determining Social Security disability involves a five-step inquiry. Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). In this process, the Commissioner asks whether (1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in Appendix I of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specific types of work. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in Steps 1-4. See Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). At Step 5, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner "to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering his age, education, and work experience." Id. If a determination of disability can be made at any step, the Commissioner need not analyze subsequent steps. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
The ALJ made four factual findings. First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Act on September 30, 1996. Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in any substantial gainful activity during the period from the alleged onset of Crohn's disease in April 1991 through the date she was last insured, September 30, 1996. Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had Crohn's disease, a medically determinable impairment, on the date she was last insured. Fourth, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not, through her date last insured, have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited her ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months, and thus did not have a severe impairment. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the Act, at any point from April 1, 1991, the date of the alleged onset of her symptoms, and September 30, 1996, the date she was last insured.
On October 28, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this suit on December 26, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.
B. The Summary Judgment Motions
In her summary judgment filings, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed several errors. First and foremost, she contends the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's Crohn's disease was not a severe impairment prior to her date last insured. Similarly, she argues that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's subjective complaints of a disabling impairment were not fully credible. Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision because it is not supported by substantial evidence. In the alternative, if the Court determines that reversal is not appropriate, Plaintiff urges that the case be remanded on the basis of new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, namely, the results of additional medical tests performed while plaintiff was hospitalized in August 1996.
Defendant responds that Plaintiff has failed to carry her burden of proving that she had a severe impairment on or before September 30, 1996, her date last insured, and that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Defendant draws particular attention to several aspects of the record, including the conclusions of two state agency physicians that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment on or before September 30, 1996, and Plaintiff's statements to treating physicians that she was a "traveling evangelist" who was frequently on the move during the same period that she now claims to have experienced frequent and severe symptoms. ...