United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
ARLONDA S. KEATON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.
Hannah Dauck United States District Judge
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). The Court
dispenses with oral argument, as it would not materially aid
the decisional process.
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
Factual and Procedural Background
Keaton's Background and Medical History
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. (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.)
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.
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.)
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). 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.
Standard of Review
Appellate Standard of Review
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); Fed.R.Civ.P.
72(b)(3). 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.
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)).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation
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.
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).
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.
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. (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.
The ALJ's Failure to Assign Weight to the Medical
Opinions of Dr. Thompson and Dr. Malasitt Constitutes
The ALJ Erred by Failing to Assign Weight to Drs. ...