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Karnes v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

March 31, 2015

JIMMY L. KARNES, Plaintiff,


NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

This matter is before me on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment (docket nos. 13 and 16), the Report & Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (docket no. 24, hereinafter "R&R"), Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (docket no. 25, hereinafter, "Objections"), and Plaintiff's Motion to Take Judicial Notice (docket no. 21). Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 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, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and deny Plaintiff's Motion to Take Judicial Notice. Plaintiff timely filed his Objections to the R&R, 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 December 8, 2009, Plaintiff Jimmy Karnes ("Plaintiff" or "Karnes") filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") payments under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f, claiming a disability onset date of October 11, 2009. To receive such benefits, Plaintiff must show his disability began before the date he was last insured, which is December 31, 2014, and that the disability existed for twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(4), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a).

Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of his application, in which he claims to be disabled as a result of osteoarthritis, bone and disc deterioration, thyroid and high blood pressure problems, sleep apnea, and an enlarged heart. His impairments allegedly caused Plaintiff to suffer from debilitating pain "all of the time" during the relevant period of disability.

A. The ALJ's Decision

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review, and on July 19, 2011, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Mark O'Hara 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 vocational expert Lori Cowan. Thereafter, on August 25, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision denying Plaintiff's claim.

Determining disability, and thus eligibility for Social Security benefits, 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 that is 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 his 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).

Here, the ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 11, 2009, the alleged onset date of his disability. He further found that the combination of Plaintiff's obesity, sleep apnea, back disorder, osteoarthritis, and hypertension caused more than minimal functional limitations and were thus "severe" under step two of the disability analysis. Nonetheless, at step three of the inquiry, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

The ALJ next considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). A claimant's RFC is defined as "the most [one] can still do [in the workplace] despite [his] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ followed a two-step process in which he first identified Plaintiff's physical impairments and then evaluated their limiting effects. The ALJ found that Plaintiff complained of "osteoarthritis, bone/disc deterioration, thyroid and high blood pressure problems, sleep apnea, and an enlarged heart." R. 24. He further noted that Plaintiff alleged he was in constant pain as a result of his conditions. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments could be expected to cause some limitations, but he nonetheless decided that "the totality of evidence fails to substantiate that his limitations are of the... intensity alleged...."[1] R. 27. He therefore determined that Plaintiff possessed the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), but that such work should "not require climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds or more than occasional climbing of stairs and ramps." R. 23. Notably, in reaching his conclusion that Plaintiff could perform "light work, " the ALJ observed that "no treating, examining, or reviewing medical sources [have] opined that the claimant is physically more limited than the above residual functional capacity." R. 27.

In light of his RFC analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not return to his position as furnace helper and therefore could not perform any past relevant work. The ALJ next considered whether Plaintiff could perform "other work" in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. In answering this question, the ALJ considered the testimony of vocational expert Lori Cowan, who stated that Plaintiff could "perform the requirements of representative light unskilled occupations, such as a cashier, cafeteria attendant, and mail clerk." R. 28. Because Plaintiff could perform "other work, " the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. On September 13, 2012, 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 October 9, 2012, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.

B. The Summary Judgment Motions

In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony regarding the severity of his pain. He maintains that the evidence in the record shows that his pain renders him completely unable to work and therefore the ALJ's determination at step five of the disability inquiry is unsupported by substantial ...

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