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Kearson v. Colvin

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

August 12, 2016

SAMUEL NATHANIEL KEARSON, 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 is before the Court on Plaintiff Samuel Nathaniel Kearson's ("Plaintiff) Objections to Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, Doc. 16, and on Plaintiffs and Defendant Acting Commissioner's ("Defendant") cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, Docs. 9, 12. For the reasons below, the Court SUSTAINS Plaintiffs objections and DECLINES to adopt the portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), Doc. 15, to which Plaintiff objects. The Court thus DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. 12. The Court GRANTS Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, Doc. 9, to the extent it seeks reversal and remand of Defendant'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 Defendant'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. See Doc. 16 at 1. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB")[1] with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on February 5, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2013. R&R at 2. The application alleged that Plaintiff suffered from "post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), traumatic brain injury residuals, post-concussion problems, thoracic strain, lumbar strain, migraines, sleep apnea, pelvic stress, vertigo, residuals of a wrist injury, and insomnia." Id. at 3; R. 63, 71.[2] Plaintiff claims that these debilitating conditions prevent him from working. R&R at 3; R. 63. In the fifteen (15) years prior, Plaintiff had worked as a truck driver and correctional officer. R. 34-35. He had also been a soldier in the United States Army from 2001 to 2008 and a defense contractor in the Middle East from 2008 to 2012. Id. at 20-21.[3] Plaintiffs application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.[4] R&R at 2. At Plaintiffs request, an administrative hearing was conducted on October 27, 2014. Id. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiffs claim for DIB. R. 29-62. Plaintiff sought to appeal the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied his request for review on December 12, 2014, making the ALJ's decision Defendant's final decision. R&R at 2; see also R. 6-8; 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§404.981, 416.1481.

         On April 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendant, seeking judicial review of the SSA's final decision. See Doc. 1. Defendant filed an Answer on July 10, 2015. Doc. 3. After this Court referred the matter to the Magistrate Judge on July 28, 2015, Doc. 5, the Parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, Docs. 9, 12. On April 28, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued an R&R, which concludes that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision, that Plaintiff suffers "moderate" limitations, R&R at 18; R. 18, and that Plaintiff is capable of performing "light work, " R&R at 14; R. 19. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that summary judgment be GRANTED for Defendant. R&R at 25.

         Plaintiff filed his objections to the R&R on May 10, 2016. Doc. 16. Defendant filed a response to the objections on May 24, 2016, Doc. 17, and this matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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); see also Wright v. Collins, 766 F.2d 841, 845 (4th Cir. 1985) (holding that a party can appeal a district court's adoption of a magistrate judge's findings only if the party objected to the R&R). Objections must be "specific and particularized" in order to "train[ ] the attention of both the district court and the court of appeals upon only those issues that remain in dispute after the magistrate judge has made findings and recommendations." U.S. v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 621 (4th Cir. 2007). "Additionally, objections that simply reiterate arguments raised before the magistrate judge are considered to be general objections to the entirety of the report and recommendation, " which are treated as waivers or failures to object. Hayslett v. Colvin, No. 7:14cv631, 2016 WL 196080, at *2 (W.D. Va. Mar. 30, 2016). "[W]hen objections to strictly legal issues are raised and no factual issues are challenged, " the district court need not conduct a de novo review. Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citing Braxton v. Estelle, 641 F.2d 392 (5th Cir. 1981)). The district court reviewing proper objections to the R&R may then "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         In exercising de novo review, the Court analyzes the Commissioner's final decision using the same standard the magistrate judge uses. Specifically, the Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether it 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 "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). It is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." 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]." Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (final alteration in original). Thus, if the Court finds that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's factual findings, even if evidence existed to support contrary findings, the ALJ's factual findings must be upheld. See id.

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         During the hearing before the ALJ on October 27, 2014, Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. 29-62. On November 12, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. at 15-25.

         The ALJ's five-step analysis resulted in the following findings. (1) Plaintiff has not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. Id. at 17. (2) Plaintiff has the five (5) severe impairments of "[ ]PTSD[ ], anxiety disorder, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obstructive sleep apnea, and headaches." Id. (3) Plaintiffs impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 18. (4) Plaintiffs residual functioning capacity ("RFC") is the ability to "perform [l]ight work" with "only occasional postural activity;" "avoid[ance of] concentrated exposure to loud noise, vibration, and hazards;" "simple[, ] routine[, ] repetitive tasks;" and "only occasional and superficial interactions with public and co-workers." Id. at 19. Thus, (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, Id. at 23, but (6) he can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, Id. at 24. The ALJ consequently found that Plaintiff has not suffered a defined disability since August 1, 2013. Id. at 25.

         While the ALJ did find that "the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, " he stated that Plaintiffs "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible .. .." Id. at 20. The ALJ identified a "significant treatment gap" related to Plaintiffs mental impairments between September 2013 and March 2014. Id. at 21. The ALJ also harbored "serious doubts" about the severity of Plaintiff s headaches, which allegedly started in 2004 or 2005, when he had completed only half of his Army career.[5] Id. Plaintiff not only continued his Army career through 2008, but earned received "fantastic earnings"[6] as a defense contractor until 2012, while the headaches continued. Id. at 21, 51.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Introduction

         Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ's conclusion that he is ineligible for DIB. See Doc. 10 at 1-2. In his motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in (1) failing to account for all effects of Plaintiff s mental impairments on his concentration, persistence, or pace in his RFC and (2) relying on vocational testimony that failed to account for all effects of Plaintiffs mental impairments. Id. at 17-22. Defendant responds in her motion for summary judgment that "Plaintiff misconstrues the holding of Mascio"[7] and "fails to cite a single piece of evidence in his argument that would support greater limitations than those already in the RFC." Doc. 13 at 12. Defendant argues that the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff s limitations "with respect to concentration, persistence, or pace (occasional need for reminders and some difficulty following written instructions), do not indicate in any way that Plaintiff would be off-task while in a work setting." Id. at 16.

         In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge rejects Plaintiffs arguments and RECOMMENDS that the Acting Commissioner's final decision be affirmed for three reasons. First, the ALJ properly accounted for the effects of Plaintiffs impairments on his concentration, persistence, or pace. Doc. 15 at 16-22. Second, the VE's testimony contemplated a hypothetical that accounted for all of Plaintiffs impairments. Id. at 23. Third, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ appropriately addressed the VA ratings decision. Id. at 23-25.

         Plaintiff objects to the R&R for the reasons stated in his Motion for Summary Judgment: (1) the ALJ did not rely on substantial evidence in determining Plaintiffs RFC and (2) the ALJ relied on vocational testimony that failed to account for all effects of Plaintiffs mental impairments. Doc. 16 at 2, 6-7. Defendant cites a lack of "evidence that indicates that the RFC failed to accommodate Plaintiffs medically established mental impairments." Doc. 17 at 2. The decision also complied with Mascio, Defendant argues, "because the RFC reflects Plaintiffs actual limitations, or lack thereof, which are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing ...


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