United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
On September 29, 2011, Cynthia Johnson ("Plaintiff") applied for disabled widow's benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from hypertension and a brain tumor, with an alleged onset date of July 10, 2007. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiff's claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in not giving effect to a finding by a prior ALJ and in conducting a faulty pain analysis. (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.")(ECF No. 12) at 1-2.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and Motion to Remand (ECF No. 11) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 29, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disabled widow's benefits and SSI with an alleged onset date of July 6, 2007. (R. at 216, 220, 239.) The SSA denied these claims initially on November 30, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on April 23, 2012. (R. at 92, 116.) At Plaintiff's written request, the ALJ held a hearing on December 19, 2013. (R. at 49, 164.) During the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to August 1, 2011. (R. at 32, 78.) On January 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiff's claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because Plaintiff could make a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 42.) On April 10, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-5.)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, the Court will "affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the Court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (summarizing the ALJ's five step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
III. THE ALJ'S DECISION
On December 19, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 47-79.) On January 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 42.) The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 35-42.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. at 35.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of a benign meningioma and asthma. (R. at 35.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of 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.
In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work, except that she could frequently, but not constantly, tolerate exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights or moving machinery. (R. at 37.) She could have no exposure to dust, fumes, odors, gases or like respiratory irritants. (R. at 37.)
At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. at 41.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 42.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 42.)
Plaintiff, fifty-four years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a nurse's aide. (R. at 239, 252.) Before the application at issue, Plaintiff had applied for benefits, but ALJ Drew Swank denied her application in a written decision on December 11, 2007. (R. at 81-91). In this instance, Plaintiff applied for Social Security benefits, alleging disability from hypertension and a brain tumor, with an alleged onset date of July 10, 2007. (R. at 251.) On January 14, 2014, ALJ Anthony Johnson denied her claim in a written decision. (R. at 32-42.) Plaintiff's appeal to this Court alleges that ALJ Johnson erred by not applying res judicata to the prior ALJ's findings and in conducting the pain analysis. (Pl.'s Mem. at 2-3.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in his decision.
A. The ALJ properly considered the prior ALJ's decision.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have applied res judicata to the prior ALJ's finding limiting Plaintiff's RFC to sedentary work. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Additionally, at step two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ should have applied res judicata to ALJ Swank's finding that Plaintiff had significant limitation in balancing and vision. (Pl.'s Mem at 1.) Defendant responds that ALJ Johnson fully complied with the law with respect to prior ALJ decisions. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. and Mem. in Supp. ("Def.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 13) at 10.) Because Plaintiff's assignments of error implicate the same case law, the Court will examine the case law for both before applying it to the step two finding and then the RFC.
When a claimant files an application for disability benefits after a previous denial of benefits, res judicata does not apply unless the claimant files an identical claim. Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 174 F.3d 473, 476 (4th Cir. 1999). However, an ALJ must consider as evidence the findings made in a final decision by an ALJ or the Appeals Council on a prior disability claim. AR 00-1(4), 2000 WL 43744, at *4. And, the ALJ must give the prior finding "appropriate weight in light of all relevant facts and circumstances." Id. In determining the appropriate weight, the ALJ considers such factors as: (1) the fact's susceptibility to change with the passage of time; (2) the likelihood of such a change; and (3) the extent that evidence not considered in the prior claim provides a basis for making a different finding in the subsequent claim. Id. Prior findings about facts such as a claimant's RFC or the severity of an impairment generally deserve less weight as the timeframe between claims ...