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Parsons v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

March 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant. v.

          FINAL ORDER


         This matter comes before the Court on Rhiannon V. Parsons' ("Plaintiff) Objections to Magistrate Judge Lawrence R. Leonard's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"). For the reasons herein, the Court: (1) ACCEPTS the R&R, ECF Nos. 17, 18; (2) AFFIRMS the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant"); (3) DENIES Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 12; and (4) GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 14.


         Plaintiff applied for Social Security Income ("SSI") on May 17, 2012, alleging disability as of April 20, 2011, caused by anemia, chronic urinary tract infections, bipolar disorder, panic /anxiety disorder, arrhythmia, and chronic pain in her hands, knees, and back. R. 21, 23, 77, 213.[1] The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application at the initial level and the reconsideration level of administrative review. R. 112, 126. Plaintiff then requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which occurred on August 12, 2015. R. 42. That day, Plaintiff, her father, and a vocational expert testified by video before the ALJ. R. 42, 43.

         On October 22, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs application. R. 18. Plaintiff timely requested reconsideration, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request because it found there was no error of law, substantial evidence supported the decision, and the case did not present a policy issue of public interest. R. 1. Therefore, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481 (2016).

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff timely filed the instant action for judicial review of Defendant's final decision. ECF No. 3. This Court referred the matter to a United States Magistrate Judge on March 21, 2017. ECF No. 10. The next day, the Magistrate Judge ordered Plaintiff to file a motion for summary judgment, and ordered Defendant to respond and to cross-move for summary judgment if desired. ECF No. 11. Plaintiff filed her Motion for Summary Judgment on April 21, 2017. ECF No. 12. Defendant opposed Plaintiffs motion and filed her Motion for Summary Judgment on May 22, 2017. ECF No. 14. Judge Leonard issued his R&R with respect to the parties' opposing motions on January 22, 2018. ECF Nos. 17, 18. The R&R recommends that this Court DENY Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, AFFIRM the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, and GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 17, 18. Plaintiff filed her objections to the R&R on February 7, 2018. ECF No. 19. Defendant responded February 21, 2018. ECF No. 20.


         The R&R thoroughly summarizes Plaintiffs background, work experience, medical history, and the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") findings of fact and conclusions of law. ECF No. 17 at 4-30. After a de novo review of the Administrative Record and the additional documents Plaintiff submitted with her Motion for Summary Judgment, this Court approves and adopts the R&R's factual background and its summary of the ALJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         With her objections to the R&R, Plaintiff also submitted medical records from two later appointments. ECF No. 19-1. First, Plaintiff submits a record titled Cardiology Outpatient Initial Visit Note from a December 26, 2017 visit with Dr. Luis Guzman. Dr. Guzman summarized Plaintiffs illness history, including her diagnoses for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome ("EDS"), Postural Orthopedic Tachycardia Syndrome ("POTS"), and Raynaud's phenomenon, ECF No. 19-1 at 1-2, which diagnoses the Magistrate Judge addressed in the R&R, ECF No. 17 at 23-24, 32-37. Dr. Guzman noted that Plaintiff was alert and oriented on her visit, she did not show signs of acute distress, was cooperative, appropriate in her mood and affect, but was "[v]ery tall and skinny." ECF No. 19-1 at 4. Dr. Guzman generally noted Plaintiff had a regular heartrate, no edema, normal valve sounds, and no abnormal murmur. Id. Nonetheless, in his physical examination notes Dr. Guzman recorded Plaintiffs heartrate at 52, and in his EKG notes Dr. Guzman recorded Plaintiffs heartrate at 43. Plaintiff highlights Dr. Guzman's summary that hear heartrate was "rather low, " she experiences episodes of tachycardia that cannot be controlled, and if she has symptomatic bradycardia events from low heartrate he "might consider" a pacemaker. Id.

         Next, Plaintiff submits a record titled Gastroenterology Initial Visit from a January 10, 2018 visit with Nurse Practitioner Ann Leggett. ECF No. 19-1 at 5. Nurse Leggett notes that Plaintiff had recently been diagnosed with diverticulitis and reported to the clinic for multiple GI complaints. Id. Those complaints included left-side pain "which is so severe at times that she can't move, " daily nausea, infrequent vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, intermittent trouble urinating, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Id. Nurse Leggett noted that Plaintiffs weight was her most concerning condition, at 108 lb with a BMI of 14.79. Id. at 8. Plaintiff highlights that Nurse Leggett "[e]mphasized that we have very little margin at this time given [Plaintiffs] current BMI. If her weight does not increase in the coming weeks, we will have to place a feeding tube." Id.


         Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court reviews de novo any part of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has properly objected. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The Court may then "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Id. The Court may reject perfunctory or rehashed objections to R&R's that amount to "a second opportunity to present the arguments already considered by the Magistrate-Judge." Gonzalez-Ramos v. Empresas Berrios, Inc., 360 F.Supp.2d 373, 376 (D. Puerto Rico 2005); see Riddick v. Colvin, 2013 WL 1192984 *1 n.1 (E.D. Va., Mar. 21, 2013).

         "Determination of eligibility for social security benefits involves a five-step inquiry." Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002); see also Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). "The claimant has the burden of production and proof in Steps 1-4. At Step 5, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering h[er] age, education, and work experience." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (internal quotation omitted). If a determination of disability can be made at any step, the Commissioner need not analyze subsequent steps. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)).

         First, the claimant must demonstrate that she is not engaged in substantial gainful activity at the time of application. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove that she has "a severe impairment... which significantly limits... [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. § 404.1520(c). Third, if the claimant's impairment matches or equals an impairment listed in appendix one of the Act, and the impairment lasts-or is expected to last-for at least twelve months, then the claimant is disabled. Id. § 404.1520(d); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpart P app. 1 (listing impairments). If, however, the impairment does not meet one of those listed, then the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The RFC is determined based on all medical or other evidence in the record of the claimant's case. Id. § 404.1520(e). Fourth, the claimant's RFC is compared with the "physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work." Id. § 404.1520(f). If it is determined that the claimant cannot meet the demands of past relevant work then, fifth, the claimant's RFC and vocational factors are considered to determine if she can make an adjustment to other work. If the claimant cannot make such an adjustment, then she is disabled for purposes of the Act. Id. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         The Court's review of this five-step inquiry is limited to determining whether: (1) the decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record; and (2) the proper legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson, 434 F.3d at 65. "If the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision." Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). In deciding whether to uphold the Commissioner's final decision, the Court considers the entire record, "including any new evidence that the Appeals Council 'specifically incorporated ... into the ...

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