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Pannell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 26, 2019




         Before me is the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of the United States Magistrate Judge recommending that I deny Plaintiff Daphne Pannell's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment/Motion to Remand [ECF No. 17], grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 21], and affirm the Commissioner's decision. The R&R was filed on July 27, 2018 [ECF No. 23], and Plaintiff filed an objection on August 24 [ECF No. 26]. The Commissioner responded [ECF No. 28], and the matter is now ripe for review. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). After careful review and consideration, and for the reasons stated below, I will overrule Plaintiff's objection and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         On April 2, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), and on July 15, 2013, she filed an application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33; 1381-1383f (2018). (See R. 146; 156.) In her application, Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since June 30, 2013, due to a combination of: chronic hypertension; diabetes; two chronic ablations on the left and right side of her heart which cause irregular heartbeats; high cholesterol; and an inability to walk for long periods of time without losing her breath and causing cervical strain. (See, e.g., R. 146; 156.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims initially on October 25, 2013 (R. 155; 165), and again upon reconsideration on January 10, 2014. (See R. 177; 187.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge and on September 10, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her attorney before Administrative Law Judge William Barto (“the ALJ”). (R. 30-63.) Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert, Dr. Sandra Wells-Brown, testified. (Id.) In a written decision dated October 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (See generally R. 13-23.) He found that Plaintiff suffered from “cardiac dysrhythmia and [a] history of degenerative disc disease, ” which qualified as severe impairments. (R. 16-17 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c)).) The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination or impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, & 416.926).) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause [her] alleged symptoms; however, [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence[, ] and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely persuasive . . . .” (R. 21.) Regarding Plaintiff's back pain, the ALJ stated, “[T]here is not objective evidence that the claimant experiences more than moderate back pain.” (R. 20.)

         After consideration of the entire Record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) & 416.967(a), and that she could “stand or walk with normal breaks for up to four hours in an eight-hour workday, ” “frequently operate hand controls bilaterally, ” “climb[] and balance, ” and that she “must be able to change position from sitting [to] standing and back without leaving the work station and no more frequently than every 15 minutes.” (See R. 18-21.) The ALJ concluded that, although Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, such as paramutual ticket checker, toy stuffer, and addressing clerk. (R. 21-22 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, & 416.969(a)).) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 22.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (R. 1-3), and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner on February 22, 2017. (Id.)

         On April 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner. (Compl. [ECF No. 1].) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the case to the United States Magistrate Judge for consideration. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment/Motion to Remand on November 5, 2017 [ECF No. 17], and the Commissioner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 4, 2018 [ECF No. 21]. On July 27, 2018, Judge Hoppe filed his Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that I deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, and affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (R&R, July 27, 2018 [ECF No. 23].) On August 26, Plaintiff filed a timely[1] objection to the R&R. (Pl.'s Obj., Aug. 26, 2018 [ECF No. 26].) The Commissioner responded on September 7 [ECF No. 28], so the matter is now ripe for review.


         Congress has limited the judicial review I may exercise over decisions of the Social Security Commissioner. I am required to uphold the decision where: (1) the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2014); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The Fourth Circuit has long defined substantial evidence as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In other words, the substantial evidence standard is satisfied by producing more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

         The Commissioner is charged with evaluating the medical evidence and assessing symptoms, signs, and findings to determine the functional capacity of the claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527-404.1545 (2014); see Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 990 (4th Cir. 1984) (noting that it is the role of the ALJ, not the vocational expert, to determine disability). The Regulations grant the Commissioner latitude in resolving factual inconsistencies that may arise during the evaluation of the evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927 (2014). Unless the decision lacks substantial evidence to support it, the ultimate determination of whether a claimant is disabled is for the ALJ and the Commissioner. See id. §§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(e); Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987). If the ALJ's resolution of the conflicts in the evidence is supported by substantial evidence, then I must affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. In reviewing the evidence, I must not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [my] judgment for that of the Secretary, ” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589), or the secretary's designate, the ALJ, Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (quoting Walker, 834 F.2d at 640).


         Plaintiff raises a single objection to the ALJ's conclusion regarding her credibility. After review of the Record and the applicable law, I cannot agree with Plaintiff's position, and I will overrule her objection.

         Under the applicable regulations:

[T]he determination of whether a person is disabled by pain or other symptoms is a two-step process. First, there must be objective medical evidence showing ‘the existence of a medical impairment(s) which results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities and which ...

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