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Thomas v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Newport News Division

March 15, 2016

NATHANIEL THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN VV. COLVIN ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

HENRY COKE MORGAN. JR SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Nathaniel Thomas's ("Plaintiff) Objections to the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. Doc. 15. For the reasons explained below, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiffs objections and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report & Recommendation ('"R&R"), Doc. 14.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff does not object to the recitation of the procedural and factual background of this case contained in the R&R, which sets forth, inter alia, the following facts. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on February 8, 2011. alleging a disability onset date of October 29, 2009. R&R at 2. The application alleged that Plaintiff suffered from unemployabilily, bilateral pes planus with heel spurs, left wrist tendonitis, a lumbosacral strain, lumbar degenerative disc disease, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and sleep apnea, Id. Plaintiffs application was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration.[1] Id. Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted on February 27, 2012. Id.; see also R. 31-52. Following the hearing, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Tom Duann concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiffs claim for disability benefits. R. 12-23. Plaintiff sought to appeal the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied his request for review on September 25, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. R&R at 2; see also R. 1-3.

On November 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. See Doc. 1 (4:12cv179). On November 6, 2013, Chief United States District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith of the Eastern District of Virginia vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the case to the ALJ. R. 589-91.

ALJ Duann conducted another hearing on March 25, 2014. R. 531-58. Following this hearing, the ALJ again concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied his claim for disability benefits. Id. at 493-510. Plaintiff sought to appeal the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied his request for review on June 30, 2014. Id. at 469-72. This denial made the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Id.

Plaintiff filed the instant action on August 18, 2014, seeking judicial review of the Acting Commissioner's ("Defendant") decision. See Doc. 1. The Acting Commissioner filed an Answer on December 30, 2014. Doc. 5. After this Court referred this matter to a Magistrate Judge on January 6, 2015, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Docs. 9, 11. On January 7, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued the R&R, which concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Doc. 14 at 19-31. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommends that summary judgment be issued in favor of the Acting Commissioner. Id. at 31.

Plaintiff filed his objections to the R&R on January 20, 2016. Doc. 15. Defendant filed a response on February 2, 2016, Doc. 16, and this matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court reviews de novo any part of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has properly objected. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The Court may then "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Id. The Court reviews those parts of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has not objected for clear error. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72; see also Diamond v. Colonial Life & Ace. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315-16 (4th Cir. 2005).

In exercising de novo review of the parts of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has properly objected, the Court analyzes the Commissioner's final decision using the same standard as that used by the Magistrate Judge. Specifically, the Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether that decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record and whether the proper legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson v. Barnhart. 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion." ld. (quoting Craig v. Chater. 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotation mark omitted). Courts have further explained that substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of evidence, but more than a mere scintilla of evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze. 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Importantly, in reviewing the ALJ's decision the Court does not "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Id. (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation mark omitted) (final alteration in original). Thus, if the Court finds that there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, even if there was also evidence to support contrary findings, the ALJ's factual findings must be upheld.

III. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ's conclusion that he is not eligible for Social Security Disability Benefits. See Doc. 15 at 2. In his motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred (1) by improperly rejecting the disability determination of the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"); (2) in failing to adequately explain his evaluation of the medical opinion of Plaintiffs primary care physician, Dr. Graham; and (3) in inappropriately rejecting Plaintiffs testimony and in acting hostile toward Plaintiff at the remand hearing. Doc. 10.

In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge rejects Plaintiffs arguments and recommends that the Acting Commissioner's final decision be affirmed, first, because the ALJ did not err in affording the VA decision slight weight. Doc. 14 at 19. Second, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ properly considered and explained the weight given to the medical evidence and that substantial evidence in the record supported the ALJ's decision to give minimal weight to the opinion of Dr. Graham, Plaintiffs treating physician. Id. at 22. Finally, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiffs credibility and that the remand "hearing transcript does not indicate that [the ...


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