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Gray v. Colvin

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

September 27, 2017

Carl D. Gray, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This 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.

         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); 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 653.

         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 (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)).[1] 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)).

         Plaintiff 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.

         A. Treating Physician Opinion

         For the 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.

         The ALJ 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)).

         While I 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).[2]

         B. Plaintiff's Credibility

         Plaintiff 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 ...


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