United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
Carl D. Gray, Plaintiff,
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
K. MOON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions
for summary judgment (dkts. 14, 16), the Report and
Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S.
Ballou (dkt. 21, hereinafter “R&R”), and
Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (dkt. 22,
hereinafter “Objections”). Pursuant to Standing
Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court
referred this matter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Ballou for
proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition.
Judge Ballou filed his R&R, advising this Court to deny
Plaintiff's motion and grant the Commissioner's
motion. Plaintiff timely filed his 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 the Objections lack merit, I will adopt Judge
Ballou's R&R in full.
Standard of Review
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);
Bird v. Comm'r of SSA, 669 F.3d 337, 340 (4th
Cir. 2012). 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). Where “conflicting evidence allows
reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled, ” the Court must defer to the
Commissioner's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at
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).
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 (and was denied) disability insurance benefits
under the Social Security Act based on his degenerative disk
disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (R&R
at 3 (citing, e.g., R18)). The ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff maintained the residual work capacity to perform a
range of sedentary work in a climate controlled environment.
(R&R at 3 (citing R20)).
lodges two objections to Judge Ballou's R&R, both of
which pertain to credibility determinations by the ALJ.
First, Plaintiff objects that the R&R “erred in
concluding the ALJ sufficiently explained his decision to
give [the treating physician] Dr. Luth's opinions little
weight” and that the ALJ's decision to do so lacked
substantial evidence. (Objections at 1). Second, Plaintiff
contends the R&R erroneously concluded that substantial
evidence supported the ALJ's adverse credibility
determination regarding Plaintiff's symptoms. (Objections
at 3). These objections are considered in turn.
Treating Physician Opinion
reasons stated by Judge Ballou, the Court concludes that the
ALJ provided a narrative of his decision and rationale that
allows for meaningful review of his conclusions about Dr.
Luth's (and other doctors) medical opinions. (R&R 11;
see, e.g., id. 7-11). Moreover,
the ALJ's conclusions regarding Dr. Luth were supported
by substantial evidence.
reviewed in detail and considered the evidence pertaining to
Plaintiff's visits to Dr. Luth. (E.g., R21
(discussing visits in February and June 2012), R22
(recounting August 2012, December 2013, February 2014, March
2014, July 2014, and June 2015 visits)). The ALJ then
specifically cited and quoted the documentation of the
December 2013 visit. (R24 (citing R439)). The ALJ found Dr.
Luth's note-which stated Plaintiff had “significant
limitations in stamina, ability to lift, ability to walk or
sit for prolonged periods”-was “vague and
conclusory, providing no explanation as to the claimant's
specific functional limitations or the period to which the
statement was intended to apply.” (R24-25). The ALJ had
already observed that the same evaluation contradicted Dr.
Luth's note: Plaintiff complained at that time only of
“moderate” pain, he demonstrated “normal
gait and posture, ” and a straight leg (or
Lasègue) test was negative. (R22 (citing R437-39)). As
for the June 2015 opinion, the ALJ provided an extended
explanation-complete with citations to the record which
supported his reasons-for why he gave Dr. Luth's opinion
only partial weight. (R&R at 7-8 (quoting R25)).
might not have reached the same conclusions as the ALJ, it is
not a district judge's role to “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). Rather, the inquiry is whether the ALJ
adequately explained its decision and whether that decision
was supported by substantial evidence. I conclude the ALJ did
so here. A reasonable mind could accept the ALJ's
rationale and evidence as adequate to support his
conclusions. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653
(4th Cir. 2005).
challenges the ALJ's assessment of his credibility in the
course of finding that he retained some residual functional
capacity. (R20-23). The ALJ reached this conclusion during an
evaluation of the “intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of the claimant's symptoms” in determining
“the extent to which they limit the claimant's
ability to do basic work activities.” (R21). Put
differently, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does have
“an underlying . . . impairment that could
reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's ...