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Lloyd-Pitts v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2017

Jennifer Lloyd-Pitts, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (dkts. 9 and 11), [1] the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (dkt. 20, hereinafter “R&R”), and Plaintiff's objections to the R&R (dkt. 21, hereinafter “Objections”). Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court referred this matter to Judge Ballou for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. Judge Ballou's R&R advises this Court to deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff timely filed her objections, obligating the Court to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which objections were made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Farmer v. McBride, 177 F. App'x 327, 330 (4th Cir. 2006). Because Plaintiff's Objections lack merit, I will adopt the R&R in full.

         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing 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. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). Substantial evidence requires more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of evidence. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). A finding is supported by substantial evidence if it is based on “relevant evidence [that] a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).

         A reviewing court may not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary (or the Secretary's designate, the ALJ).” Id. (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)). “Ultimately, it is the duty of the [ALJ] reviewing a case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, even if the court would have made contrary determinations of fact, it must nonetheless uphold the ALJ's decision, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See Whiten v. Finch, 437 F.2d 73, 74 (4th Cir. 1971).

         II. Analysis

         Because Plaintiff does not object to the R&R's recitation of the factual background and claim history in this case, I incorporate that portion of the R&R into this opinion. (See R&R at 2-3). By way of summary, Plaintiff applied for, but was denied, Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled due to severe migraines, depression, emotional problems, and pain. After a hearing and an initial determination that Plaintiff was not disabled, Administrative Law Judge Mark A. O'Hara (hereinafter “ALJ”) reviewed the case again on remand from the Appeals Council.[2] The ALJ maintained his determination that Plaintiff was not disabled after conducting another hearing that included testimony from an impartial medical expert Charles L. Cooke, M.D. and vocational expert Gerald K. Wells, Ph.D. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was insured at the time the alleged disability began and that, while she suffered from the medically determinable impairments, none limited her ability to perform basic work activities. Accordingly, these impairments were not “severe.” Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not satisfy step two of the sequential five step disability determination, [3] and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         Plaintiff makes two objections to the R&R, arguing that Judge Ballou erred in finding the ALJ: (1) properly weighed the medical opinion evidence, and appropriately found that Plaintiff's headaches were “not severe”; and (2) properly evaluated Ms. Pitts credibility. Each is discussed below.

         A. Weight of Medical Opinion Evidence

          Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in concluding that the opinions of Dr. Login, Plaintiff's treating physician, should be given little weight. The Court concurs with Judge Ballou's assessment that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision to give little weight to the Dr. Login's opinion. Thus, the Court overrules the Plaintiff's objection on this point.

         While it is the Commissioner's role to make disability determinations, the ALJ is still bound by federal regulations to provide “good reasons” for not giving controlling weight to a treating physician's medical opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). However, a treating physician's legal conclusions are given no additional or special weight. See Morgan v. Barnhart, 142 F. App'x 716, 722 (4th Cir. 2005). In the event that the treating physician's medical opinion is not given controlling weight, the ALJ must analyze five factors[4] to determine what weight should be given to the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(5), 416.927(c)(2)-(5).

         As Judge Ballou correctly recognized, the ALJ appropriately gave consideration to all of these factors in determining that the medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician should not be given controlling weight. (R&R at 10-11). The ALJ noted that Dr. Login's opinion was not consistent with the “longitudinal record” and was based on symptoms reported by Plaintiff, who the ALJ found lacked credibility. (R at 35). Moreover, no other treating physician concurred with Dr. Login that Plaintiff was disabled. (Id.) The ALJ also found that Dr. Login had taken an “advocacy role on the behalf of the claimant, ” resulting in a loss of objectivity in determining Plaintiff's true condition. (Id. at 36). The ALJ reasoned that such a loss of objectivity was apparent from the fact that Dr. Login “gloss[ed] over” Plaintiff's apparent drug seeking behavior, while Plaintiff's alleged symptoms did not align with her physical condition. (Id.)

         In response, Plaintiff directs the Court's attention to several cases rejecting speculation by the ALJ as to a treating physician's possible sympathetic or nefarious motivations. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 832 (9th Cir. 1995); Sullivan v. Colvin, 4:12-cv-04033, 2013 WL 2155115 *5 (W.D. Ark. May 17, 2013); Tully v. Colvin, 943 F.Supp.2d 1157, 1168 (E.D. Wash. 2013); Trujillo v. Astrue, No. 1:12-cv-89, 2013 WL 706270 *5 (D. Utah Feb. 26, 2013). Yet these cases serve only to knock down a straw man propped up by Plaintiff. The ALJ did not infer sympathy or dishonesty by Dr. Login in the abstract. Rather, as discussed above, the ALJ supported his decision to give Dr. Login's medical opinion “little weight” with substantial evidence from the administrative record. (R at 35). Thus, Plaintiff's objection as to this matter will be overruled.

         B. ...

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