United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
LISA D. COLBERT, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Defendant.
ELLIS, III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
issue in this Social Security appeal are plaintiffs objection
to the magistrate judge's November 21, 2017 Report &
Recommendation ("R&R") (Doc. 21). On May 11,
2016 an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded
that plaintiffs headaches and migraines did not render
plaintiff disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
The magistrate judge's R&R concluded that the
ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and
recommended that summary judgment be entered on behalf of the
Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").
R&R correctly notes, on review of a decision of the
Commissioner, district courts are limited to determining
whether the Commissioner's decision was supported by
substantial evidence on the record and whether the proper
legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence.
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."
Craig, 16 F.3d at 589. Importantly, in conducting
this inquiry, district courts may not "undertake to
reweigh conflicting evidence, mak[e] credibility
determinations, or substitute [their] judgment for that of
the [ALJ]." Id. Plaintiff here objects to the
magistrate judge's R&R for largely the same reasons
she appealed the ALJ decision in the first instance, namely
(i) that the ALJ failed to credit plaintiffs testimony
properly; and (ii) that the ALJ failed to afford sufficient
weight to the opinion of plaintiff s treating physician, Dr.
contrary to plaintiffs view, substantial evidence supports
both the ALJ's finding that plaintiffs testimony was not
credible and the ALJ's assignment of partial weight to
the report of plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Stephenson.
To begin with, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
finding that plaintiffs testimony regarding the intensity and
limiting effects of her symptoms was not persuasive because
this testimony were contradicted by medical and other
evidence in the record. It is well-settled in the Fourth
Circuit that a claimant's allegations about pain
"need not be accepted to the extent they are
inconsistent with the available evidence . . . ."
Craig, 76 F.3d at 595. Here, the ALJ identified
several pieces of record evidence that contradicted
plaintiffs subjective expressions of pain. In particular,
although plaintiff stated that her headaches worsened to the
point of preventing her from working in 2011, the record
reflects that from July 2011 through 2016, plaintiff
regularly reported to her treating physician that her
condition was no problem, that she was doing good, or that
she was feeling okay. And Dr. Stephenson's treatment
notes suggest that plaintiffs medication was adequately
treating the symptoms she did experience during this time
period. Importantly, evidence in the record also casts doubt
on plaintiffs general credibility in discussing her medical
conditions. In this regard, the ALJ noted that plaintiff made
misrepresentations to medical officials about the medication
she was prescribed in 2010, informing one physician that she
had only received a Hydrocodone prescription from him when,
in reality, a different physician had also prescribed her
Hydrocodone. In sum, substantial record evidence both
contradicts plaintiffs statements about the severity of her
symptoms and casts doubt more generally on her credibility.
Accordingly, as noted in the magistrate judge's R&R,
the ALJ's finding that plaintiff lacked credibility is
supported by substantial evidence.
evidence also supports the ALJ's decision to credit only
portions of Dr. Stephenson's report because the ALJ
appropriately declined to credit Dr. Stephenson's opinion
where Dr. Stephenson's opinion was either inconsistent
with other record evidence or where his opinion was based
solely on the plaintiffs subjective assessments of her
symptoms. Fourth Circuit precedent makes clear that the
opinions of a treating physician should be assigned less
weight where, as here, those opinions are inconsistent or
unsupported by medical evidence in the record. See
Johnson v. Barnett, 434 F.3d 650, 656 n.8 (4th Cir.
2005) (noting that "substantial evidence supports [an]
ALJ's finding that [a treating physician's report] is
unreliable" where the report "inexplicably
conflicts with other medical evidence"). And it is
equally clear in the Fourth Circuit that a physician's
opinion is entitled to less weight when the opinion is based
only on a plaintiffs complaints and contradicted by the
physician's office notes. See Craig, 16 F.3d at
590 (finding that sufficient evidence supported ALJ's
rejection of treating physician's opinion where opinion
was "inconsistent with other substantial evidence"
and "based upon [the claimant's] subjective reports
principles, applied here, compel the conclusion that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Dr.
Stephenson's opinion was entitled to limited credibility.
Specifically, although Dr. Stephenson suggested that
plaintiffs work capacity was limited and that plaintiff was
disabled, his treatment notes reveal that throughout the
period in question, plaintiff was doing okay, feeling good,
or responding well to the medications Dr. Stephenson
prescribed. Moreover, Dr. Stephenson's opinion was based
largely on subjective assessments from plaintiff with limited
support from any physical findings. Because the ALJ found
plaintiffs assessments were not credible, this finding in
turn affected the credibility of Dr. Stephenson's opinion
inasmuch as his opinion was derived from plaintiffs
subjective assessments. In sum, substantial evidence supports
the ALJ's finding with respect to Dr. Stephenson's
opinion because Dr. Stephenson's opinion was inconsistent
with other medical evidence in the record and relied heavily
on plaintiffs subjective assessments.
upon consideration of the November 21, 2017 Report and
Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge, and
upon an independent de novo review of the record, it
is hereby ORDERED that the Court
ADOPTS as its own the magistrate judge's
findings of fact and recommendation as set forth in the
November 21, 2017 Report and Recommendation (Doc. 21).
further ORDERED that plaintiffs Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. 10) is DENIED and
defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 16) is
Clerk is directed to enter Rule 58 judgment on behalf of
defendant and against plaintiff, and to place this matter
among the ended causes. The Clerk is further directed to send
a copy of this Order to all counsel of record.
42 U.S.C. ch. 7.
 Plaintiff argues that the magistrate
judge's R&R improperly produced post-hoc
rationalizations for the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff
correctly notes that district courts must "affirm the
ALJ's decision only upon the reasons he gave, "
Patterson v. Bowen,839 F.2d 221, 225 (4th Cir.
1988), but here the magistrate judge is not offering a new or
different ground for the ALJ's decision. Instead, the
magistrate judge's R&R permissibly points to
additional evidence in support of the ALJ's decision.
Specifically, the magistrate judge's R&R points to
the fact that plaintiff suffered from headaches beginning in
1992 and Dr. Stephenson did not change plaintiffs course of
treatment when the headaches allegedly became debilitating in
2011. This fact, far from a post hoc rationalization for the
ALJ's decision, is simply additional record evidence that
supports the ALJ's finding that Dr. Stephenson's
opinion was entitled to limited credibility. See Stroman
v. Colvin, 2015 WL 337578, at *4 (D.S.C. Jan. 26, 2015)