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Brim v. Berryhill

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

April 11, 2017

JEFFREY L. BRIM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Jackson L. Kiser Senior United States District Judge

         Before me is the Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) of Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe [ECF No. 23], recommending that I deny Plaintiff Jeffrey Brim's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 15], grant Defendant Nancy Berryhill's (“the Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No 19], and affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the R & R on March 3, 2017. [ECF No. 24]. The Commissioner filed a response on March 28, 2017 [ECF No. 25]. For the reasons stated below, I will adopt the R & R in full and overrule Plaintiff's objections.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 1, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, respectively. See 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq.; §§ 1381-1383f. Plaintiff alleged that he was disabled as of October 24, 2011. (R. at 192, May 10, 2016 [ECF No. 9].) Plaintiff's application was denied at both the initial and reconsideration stages. (See generally R. at 88- 125.) On March 19, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Owen (“the ALJ”). (See R. at 67-87.)

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written opinion submitted on June 19, 2014. (R. at 41-56.) The ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a).[1] The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insurance requirements of the Social Security Act, and found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since October 24, 2011. (R. at 46.) Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments: obesity, angina pectoris, and hypertension. (R. at 46-47.) Plaintiff did not have any impairments that met the severity of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 47.) Finally, the ALJ determined that [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, [2] and given Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, Plaintiff could work as, for example, “a flagger, a cafeteria attendant, [or] a hand sander, ” jobs that existed in sufficient numbers in the national and local economies (R. at 51.)

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's testimony was “not entirely credible.” (R. at 48.) For example, in an application for unemployment benefits, Plaintiff certified that he could work at least part-time. (Id.) The ALJ noted that this finding is “far from dispositive . . . [but] it is nonetheless evidence that raises questions about [Plaintiff's] credibility.” (Id.) More importantly, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's testimony regarding his conditions and symptoms did not align with his medical history. (R. at 48-49.) Plaintiff's request for a rehearing was denied by the Social Security Administration Appeals Council. (R. at 1-4.)

         Plaintiff filed the present action on December 11, 2015, (Compl., [ECF No. 2]), and I referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Hoppe. The parties filed cross-motions for Summary Judgment [ECF Nos. 15, 19], and Magistrate Judge Hoppe issued an R & R recommending that I grant the Commissioner's Motion, deny Plaintiff's Motion, and affirm the ALJ's decision. [ECF No. 23]. Plaintiff filed timely objections wherein he argues that the R & R erroneously concludes that (1) substantial evidence existed to support the ALJ's credibility determinations, and (2) the ALJ properly considered how Plaintiff's obesity might exacerbate his other limitations. [ECF No. 24]. The Commissioner filed her response to Plaintiff's objections on March 28, 2017 [ECF No. 25], and this matter is now ripe for review

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I must review de novo any findings by the Magistrate Judge to which proper objections have been filed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). A plaintiff must, however, make specific objections to the R & R; a plaintiff's objection cannot simply be mere disagreement with the Magistrate's conclusions. See Keith v. Astrue, 2012 WL 4458649, at *3 (W.D. Va. Aug. 9, 2012); Veney v. Astrue, 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 846 (W.D. Va. 2008) (“Allowing a litigant to obtain de novo review of her entire case by merely reformatting an earlier brief as an objection ‘mak[es] the initial reference to the magistrate useless.'” (quoting Howard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 932 F.2d 505, 509 (6th Cir. 1991))).

         Congress has limited the judicial review I may exercise over decisions of the Social Security Commissioner. I am required to uphold the decision where: (1) the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). In other words, the substantial evidence standard is satisfied by producing more than a scintilla of evidence, which may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

         The Commissioner is charged with evaluating the medical evidence and assessing symptoms, signs, and findings to determine the functional capacity of the claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527-404.1545. The Commissioner has broad discretion in resolving factual inconsistencies that may arise during the evaluation of the evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927. Unless the decision lacks substantial evidence to support it, the ultimate determination of whether a claimant is disabled is for the ALJ and the Commissioner. See Id. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d); Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987). If the ALJ's resolution of the conflicts in the evidence is supported by substantial evidence, then I must affirm the Commissioner's final decision. See Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. In reviewing the evidence, I must not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [my] judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. “Ultimately, the issue before this Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's determination is reinforced by substantial evidence, and whether it was reached through correct application of the law.” Dunn v. Colvin, 973 F.Supp.2d 630, 638 (W.D. Va. 2013).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff makes two objections. First, he contends the R & R erroneously concludes that there was substantial evidence to justify the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's statements regarding the severity of his symptoms were less than credible. (Obj. at 1, Mar. 3, 2017 [ECF No. 24].) Second, he asserts the ALJ failed to properly analyze how Plaintiff's obesity could affect the severity of his other impairments, and thus, his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). I will address each of these objections in turn.

         A. Severity of ...


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