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Keaton v. Colvin

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

March 3, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.


          M. Hannah Dauck United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Arlonda Keaton challenges the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") prepared by the Honorable David J. Novak, United States Magistrate Judge, (ECF No. 11), addressing the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, (Pl's Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 7; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 9). The Magistrate Judge recommends that this Court deny Keaton's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and uphold the final decision of the Commissioner. (R&R at 32.) Keaton objects to the R&R. (Pl's Objs. R&R, ECF No. 12.) The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).[1] The Court dispenses with oral argument, as it would not materially aid the decisional process.

         For the reasons articulated below, the Court will overrule Keaton's objections and adopt the R&R. Accordingly, the Court will deny Keaton's Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 7), grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 9), and affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Keaton's Background and Medical History

         Keaton is a sixty-two year old high school graduate who has completed three years of college. (R. at 231.) She worked at several jobs from 1996 to 2008.[2] (R. at 230-31.) Keaton applied for DIB in 2012, and for SSI in 2013. (R. at 34.) She claims disability based on hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, left thoracic outlet syndrome, degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine with left ulnar neuropathy/cubital tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine, mild cardiomyopathy, and minimal coronary artery disease. (R. at 36.) In addition, Keaton takes the medication Sertraline to control her "not severe" conditions of sleep apnea and depression/anxiety. (R. at 37.)

         Keaton has several impairments that affect her daily life, including aortic valve diseases, spine disorders, essential hypertension, and congenital heart disease. (R. at 101-02.) Although Keaton has exertion limitations, she is able to sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks, and stand or walk for about six hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 103.) Keaton cannot tolerate concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, or gases, she cannot tolerate poor ventilation, and she must avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous machinery and heights. (R. at 104.)

         B. Procedural History

         Keaton applied for DIB and SSI under the Social Security Act (the "Act") on May 29, 2012, and April 23, 2013, respectively. (R. at 34.) At the time she filed those applications, Keaton alleged an onset date of disability ("AOD") of April 15, 2003. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claims, and denied her later request for reconsideration. (R. at 34.) Keaton then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 142.) In April of 2014, Keaton amended her AOD from April 15, 2003, to January 10, 2012. (R. at 34.) On April 21, 2014, an ALJ conducted a hearing and found against Keaton. (R. at 34.) On August 7, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Keaton's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. (R. at 1.)

         Keaton then sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision and this Court referred the matter to the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[3] Keaton filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 7), arguing that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence and opinions, erroneously discounted Keaton's credibility, and failed to properly assess Keaton's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). (Pl's Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 4-29, ECF No. 8; R&R 1, ECF. No. 11.) The Commissioner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment at a later date. (ECF No. 9.) The Magistrate Judge considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgement and issued an R&R. (R&R, ECF No. 11.) Keaton timely filed her objections to the R&R in this Court, (ECF No. 12), and the Commissioner properly responded to the objections, (ECF No. 13). The Court addresses Keaton's objections below.

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Appellate Standard of Review

         This Court reviews de novo any part of the Magistrate Judge's R&R to which a party has properly objected. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C);[4] Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).[5] In doing so, "[t]he district judge may 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 reviewing the ALJ's decision regarding disability benefits, this Court "'must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.'" Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). Substantial evidence supports a finding if the finding is based on '"relevant evidence [that] a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence requires "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence." Id. If the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, 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). However, "the substantial evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v. Colvin, 607 F.App'x. 264, 274 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)). '"In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ].'" Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (first and second alterations in original) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 598 (4th Cir. 1996)).

         B. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation

         Because this case involves a decision determining eligibility for benefits, the Court reviews "whether the ALJ's finding ... was reached based upon the correct application of the relevant law." Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (citing Coffman, 829 F.2d at 517). The "[determination of eligibility for social security benefits involves a five-step inquiry." Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1520.

         In step one, the "ALJ asks ... whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; [and, ] at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations." Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC, taking into account all of the claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). A claimant's RFC is an assessment of his or her capacity to perform sustained physical and mental activities on a regular and continuous basis, in spite of his or her limitations. See SSR 96-8p (policy interpretation for assessing RFC). After determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four and considers whether the claimant could continue performing the work that he or she did in the past. If the claimant cannot continue to perform his or her prior work, the ALJ proceeds to step five and determines whether the claimant could perform any other job available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.905, 416.920; see also Rogers v. Barnhart, 216 F.App'x 345, 347-48 (4th Cir. 2007).

         If, at any step of the analysis, the ALJ determines that the claimant is not disabled, the inquiry must stop and the ALJ must deny the claim. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73.

         III. Analysis

         Keaton raises four objections to the R&R, some of which she improperly seeks to incorporate from her motion for summary judgment before the Magistrate Judge.[6] (Pl's Objs. R&R 1-2, ECF No. 12.) First, Keaton argues that the R&R erroneously finds that the ALJ's failure to assign weight to certain medical evidence constitutes harmless error. Second, Keaton contends that the R&R errs in finding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's evaluation of the medical record and assignment of weight to the opinion evidence. Third, Keaton posits that the R&R's determination that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's evaluation of Keaton's credibility constitutes error. Fourth, Keaton avers that the R&R erroneously finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination of Keaton's RFC. The Court addresses each challenge raised by Keaton below.

         A. The ALJ's Failure to Assign Weight to the Medical Opinions of Dr. Thompson and Dr. Malasitt Constitutes Harmless Error

         1. The ALJ Erred by Failing to Assign Weight to Drs. ...

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