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Seals v. Berryhill

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

February 27, 2019

KARLA LAVERNE SEALS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HENRY COKE MORGAN, JR SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge DENYING Plaintiff Karla Laverne Seals' ("Plaintiffs" or "Seals'") Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTING Commissioner Nancy Berryhill's ("Defendant's" or "Commissioner's") Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. 20. For the reasons stated herein, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiffs Objections to the Report, Doc. 21, and ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation in full.

         I.PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Seals brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge the Commissioner's denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Seals filed applications for benefits on August 12 and September 6, 2013, alleging that she became disabled on August 13, 2013, [1]due to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome ("AIDS"), hepatitis C, herpes, depression, and anxiety. Report and Recommendation ("Report") at 1-2. The state agency denied these claims. Id. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") heard the matter on October 11, 2016, and issued an opinion denying the claims on January 10, 2017. Id. at 2. The Appeals Council denied Seals' request for review of the ALJ's decision on November 17, 2017. Id.

         Seals filed a complaint with this Court on January 29, 2018, Doc. 3, and filed her Motion for Summary Judgment on June 11, 2018, Doc. 16. The Commissioner filed a cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on July 11, 2018, Doc. 17. This matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on May 2, 2018. Doc. 9.

         The Magistrate Judge reviewed the motions and issued the instant Report and Recommendation on December 19, 2018. Doc. 20. Plaintiff timely filed her objections to the Report on January 2, 2019, Doc. 21, and the Commissioner filed her response on January 16, 2019, Doc. 22.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 reviews those parts of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has not objected for clear error. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72; see also Diamond v. Colonial Life & Ace. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315-16 (4th Cir. 2005).

         In exercising de novo review of the parts of a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which a party has properly objected, the Court analyzes the Commissioner's final decision using the same standard as that used by the Magistrate Judge. Specifically, the Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether that decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record and whether the proper legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotation mark omitted). Courts have further explained that substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of evidence, but more than a mere scintilla of evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Importantly, in reviewing the ALJ's decision the Court does not "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Id. (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation mark omitted) (final alteration in original). Even if "the evidence will permit a conclusion inconsistent with that of the Commissioner," the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ultimate conclusions are legally correct. See Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964); Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Report describes the relevant facts in detail, and neither party objects to the Report's account of the facts.[2] Accordingly, the Court need not reiterate the factual background, except where relevant to its analysis.

         A. Applicable Law

         There is a five-step process for assessing a claim for disability insurance benefits. An ALJ must determine: (1) a claimant's current employment status; (2) the medical severity of a claimant's impairments; (3) the classification of a claimant's medical impairment; (4) a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and ability to perform past relevant work; and (5) a claimant's ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; see also Brown v. Comm'r Social Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 254-55 (4th Cir. 2017).

         In analyzing a claimant's RFC at step four, a Court must consider the objective medical evidence in the record, including the medical opinions of treating providers. Felton-Miller v. Astrue, 459 Fed.Appx. 226, 231 (4th Cir. 2011). In cases filed before March 27, 2017, "controlling weight must be accorded to a treating source's medical opinion," because those sources "are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [one's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations." Brown, 873 F.3d at 256 (citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2)) (internal quotations omitted). If an ALJ does not afford controlling weight to a treating physician, she must articulate "good reasons" for the weight assigned to the opinion and address the following factors: (1) the length of a treatment relationship; (2) the nature and extent of a treatment relationship; (3) the degree of supporting explanations for their opinions; (4) consistency with the record; and (5) the specialization of the physician. Jefferson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. CIV.A.4:08CV40, 2009 WL 1491229, at *9 (E.D. Va. May 26, ...


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