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Saunders v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2018

Dionne C. Saunders, 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. 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”).[1] 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.

         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, 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)).[2] 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).

         Plaintiff's 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.

         A. The ALJ's findings about Plaintiff's job history were supported by substantial evidence.

         In 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.

         Plaintiff 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 substantial evidence.

         B. The ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet the severity of the listed impairments was ...

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