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Brown v. Colvin

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

September 29, 2016

ROBERT DAVID BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge

         This social security disability appeal was referred to the Honorable Robert S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by plaintiff Robert David Brown and defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the commissioner). (Dkt. Nos. 16, 20.) After briefing and oral argument, the magistrate judge filed a report and recommendation on August 2, 2016, recommending that the court deny Brown's motion, grant the commissioner's motion, and affirm the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) final decision denying Brown disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). (R. & R., Dkt. No. 26.)

         Brown filed objections to the report, and the commissioner filed a response. (Dkt. Nos. 27, 28). The court has reviewed the report, Brown's objections, and the commissioner's response. For the reasons set forth herein, the court will adopt the report in full, grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, and deny Brown's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Brown protectively filed for DIB and SSI on March 20, 2013, claiming he had been disabled since July 31, 2012, due to radiating back pain, leg pain, migraines, allergies, and numbness in his left leg and right foot. (R. 170-75, 176-84, Dkt. No. 8-1). Brown's initial claims were denied on September 19, 2013, and upon reconsideration on December 18, 2013. (R. 70-71, 101-102.) On January 2, 2014, Brown requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 124- 25.) That hearing was held September 23, 2014. (R. 26-50.) Brown was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing, as did vocational expert Barry S. Hensley, Ed. D. (Id.)

         The ALJ entered a decision on January 9, 2015, analyzing Brown's claims under the familiar five-step process of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). (R. 12-20.) Although the ALJ found that Brown's chronic headaches and lumbar spine degenerative disc disease with sciatica were severe impairments, he determined that Brown had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with additional restrictions, [2] and was therefore not disabled. (R. 17.) In so finding, the ALJ determined that some of Brown's statements about the limiting effects of his migraines and back pain were not substantiated by objective medical evidence and were not entirely credible. The ALJ gave great weight the state agency medical consultants' opinions that Brown could perform a reduced range of light exertional activity, [3] which were consistent with objective evidence in the record. (R. 17-18.)

         After the Appeals Council denied Brown's request for review of the ALJ's decision, (R. 1-3), Brown filed this action and moved for summary judgment. Brown challenged the ALJ's conclusion on several grounds. First, Brown argued that the ALJ failed to consider all evidence in the record, specifically evidence that Brown had complained of his migraines to providers at the Bradley Free Clinic and evidence that his back pain was aggravated by walking. Second, Brown argued that the ALJ failed to consider Brown's impairments in combination. Finally, Brown claimed that the ALJ's credibility findings were not supported by substantial evidence. (Pl.'s Summ. J. Br. 17-22, Dkt. No. 17.) The commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 20), and the motions were referred to the magistrate judge.

         The magistrate judge recommended that this court grant the commissioner's motion for summary judgment, deny Brown's, and affirm the ALJ's decision. (R. & R. 1.) The magistrate judge disagreed with Brown's argument that the ALJ failed to consider all evidence related to Brown's migraines and back impairments. The report determined that the fact that the ALJ did not specifically address Brown's complaints of migraines to providers at the Bradley Free Clinic was not reversible error because the ALJ was not required to recite every piece of evidence in the record and none of those providers-or any of Brown's other doctors-testified that Brown's migraines limited his ability to work. The magistrate judge rejected Brown's arguments regarding his back pain as well, noting that there were inconsistencies in the record as to its limiting effects, which justified the ALJ's conclusion.

         The report also rejected Brown's argument that the ALJ failed to consider the cumulative effects of his impairments. Finally, the magistrate judge determined that the ALJ's credibility findings were supported by substantial evidence. Recognizing inconsistencies between Brown's subjective complaints and other evidence in the record, as well as evidence that Brown may have been overstating his symptoms, the magistrate judge deferred to the ALJ's credibility findings. Brown objected to the each of these conclusions.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         The court reviews the ALJ's final decision to determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Ridings v. Apfel, 76 F.Supp.2d 707, 708 (W.D. Va. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is

evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.”

Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). In reviewing an ALJ's decision, the court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; it must uphold the ALJ's determination if it was supported by substantial evidence and applied the correct law. See id.; King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) (“This ...


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