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Watson v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

August 3, 2016

ZOE SAMANTHA WATSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. 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 Zoe Samantha Watson's ("Plaintiff') Objections to the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. Doc. 14. For the reasons explained below, the Court DECLINES to adopt the portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), Doc. 13, to which Plaintiff objects. The Court thus DENIES Defendant Acting Commissioner's ("Defendant") Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. 10. The Court GRANTS Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment Doc. 8, to the extent it seeks reversal and remand of the Commissioner's decision and DENIES it to the extent it seeks entry of an order directing the award of benefits, Therefore, the Court VACATES and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further administrative proceedings.

         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 26, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2013. R&R at 1. The application alleged that Plaintiff suffered from spinal pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, severe depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Id. Plaintiffs application was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration.[1] Id. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted on September 30, 2014. Id. at 2; see also R. 53-74. Following the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiffs claim for disability benefits. R. 33-47. Plaintiff sought to appeal the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 17, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. R&R at 2; see also R. 1-3.

         On September 15, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant"), seeking judicial review of the Acting Commissioner's decision. See Doc. 1. Defendant filed an Answer on November 30, 2015. Doc. 4. After this Court referred this matter to a Magistrate Judge on December 4, 2015, Doc. 6, both parties filed motions for summary judgment, Docs. 8, 10. On May 18, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued the R&R, which concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Doc. 13 at 9-20. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommends that summary judgment be issued in favor of the Acting Commissioner. Id. at 20.

         Plaintiff filed her objections to the R&R on May 30, 2016. Doc. 14. Defendant filed a response on June 9, 2016, Doc. 15, 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." Id. (quoting Craig v. Chaten 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 she is not eligible for Social Security Disability Benefits. See Doc. 14 at 2. In her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred (1) in failing "to account for all of the effects of [Plaintiffs] mental impairments affecting her concentration, persistence and pace" in his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination; and (2) in improperly relying upon "vocational testimony in reaching his decision that failed to fairly account for all of [Plaintiffs] limitations resulting from her impairments." Doc. 9 at 3.

         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 properly accounted for Plaintiffs mental impairments when making his RFC determination. Doc. 13 at 13. Second, the Magistrate Judge finds that the Vocational Examiner's ("VE") testimony in response to the ALJ's hypotheticals properly accounted for Plaintiffs mental impairments. Id. at 18.

         In her objections to the R&R, Plaintiff requests that the R&R be rejected and that summary judgment be entered in Plaintiffs favor, because the ALJ failed to reconcile two contradictory findings and because such an error resulted in an improper RFC finding, which the ALJ then improperly used as the basis for hypothetical questions to the VE. Doc. 14 at 2, 7. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ thus acted in contradiction of Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 637 (4th Cir. 2015). Id. Plaintiffs objections appear identical to the arguments Plaintiff raised before the Magistrate Judge. See id.; see also Doc. 13 at 13.

         A. The ALJ Failed to Explain Why Plaintiffs Moderate Limitation in Concentration, Persistence, or Pace Does Not ...


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