United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
Dionne C. Saunders, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
K. MOON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions
for summary judgment (dkts. 15, 16), the Report and
Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S.
Ballou (dkt. 19, hereinafter “R&R”), and
Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (dkt. 20,
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 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 the Objections lack merit, the Court 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, the
Court incorporates 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) supplemental security
income under the Social Security Act based on her carcinoid
cancer, bipolar disorder, diabetes, diverticulosis,
gastroesophageal reflux disease, high blood pressure, anxiety
disorder, sleep apnea, anemia, vision problems, irritable
bowel syndrome, acid reflux, migraines, and a cyst on her
liver. (R&R at 2 (citing, e.g.,
R350)). Throughout these proceedings, Plaintiff
has also alleged other health and mental problems, including:
diabetic peripheral neuropathy, abdominal / genitourinary
disorder, chronic pain, coronary artery disease,
fibromyalgia, torn rotator cuff, depression, and panic
attacks. (Dkt. 20 at 3). The ALJ concluded Plaintiff had
“the residual functional capacity to perform light
work, ” and was accordingly not disabled. (R&R at
3; R30 43-44).
motion for summary judgment argues the ALJ's
determination is not supported by substantial evidence.
(R&R at 4 (“Stating only that ‘Social
Security needs to further investigate [her] medical records
for mistakes, ' [Plaintiff] fails to point to any legal
error committed by the ALJ and does not identify specific
facts that the ALJ failed to consider or wrongfully rejected.
However, I will liberally construe [Plaintiff]'s
submission to argue that the ALJ's determination that she
is capable of a limited range of light work is not supported
by substantial evidence.”)). But Plaintiff's
objections to the R&R go beyond that more general
argument, and so this Court will additionally address those
new objections. See United States v. George, 971
F.2d 1113, 1118 (4th Cir. 1992) (“We believe that as
part of its obligation to determine de novo any
issue to which proper objection is made, a district court is
required to consider all arguments directed to that issue,
regardless of whether they were raised before the
magistrate.”); see also Cruz v. Marshall, 673
F. App'x 296, 299 (4th Cir. 2016) (“When a party
raises new information in objections to an R&R,
regardless of whether it is new evidence or a new argument,
the district court must do more than simply agree with the
magistrate. It must provide independent reasoning tailored to
the objection.”). Generously construed, Plaintiff also
objects to the ALJ's determination Plaintiff does not
have a medical impairment that meets the severity of the
listed impairments, the ALJ's discounting the credibility
of her physicians, the ALJ's statements about her job
history, the failure of the Social Security Administration to
physically examine her, the absence of her attorney during
the hearing before the ALJ, and the denial of an opportunity
to address the ALJ. (Dkt. 20 at 3). Plaintiff's
Objections to the R&R further contains attachments that
include portions of the administrative record,
Defendant's briefing, and recent medical evaluations.
Each of these issues is addressed below.
The ALJ's findings about Plaintiff's job history were
supported by substantial evidence.
determining whether Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ was
required to work through a five question framework:
[T]he ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been
working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical
impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration
requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments
meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at
step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work
given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and
at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015).
At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had some employment
after her application, but not “substantial gainful
activity.” (R28). This was a ruling in Plaintiff's
favor: “If [claimant is] doing substantial gainful
activity, [the Commissioner] will find that [she is] not
disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). The ALJ
also discussed Plaintiff's job history at step four, when
considering her “residual functional capacity and [her]
past relevant work.” Id. at §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Here, the ALJ's consideration of her
post-application employment was not in Plaintiff's favor:
“If [claimant] can still do [her] past relevant work,
[the Commissioner] will find that [she is] not
disabled.” Id.; see also R31, 43-44.
objected to “the statements made that [she] was
employed in 2011 and 2012.” (Dkt. 20 at 3). The
ALJ's decision does not rely on any employment in 2011
and 2012; the ALJ merely found more generally she had several
admittedly minor jobs after her application. (R31, 43-44,
341-44). These findings, which were not objected to, were
based on Plaintiff's own testimony during the hearing.
(R58-60). Accordingly, the ALJ's findings about
Plaintiff's employment history were supported by
The ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's impairments did
not meet the severity of the listed impairments was ...