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Harris v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2019

THOMAS HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Jackson L. Kiser Senior United States District Judge.

         Before me is the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of the United States Magistrate Judge recommending that I grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 18] and affirm the Commissioner's decision. The R&R was filed on August 27, 2018 [ECF No. 21], and Plaintiff filed an objection on September 10 [ECF No. 21]. The Commissioner responded [ECF No. 22], 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 objections and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On February 27, 2013, Plaintiff Thomas Harris (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), and supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33; 1381- 1383f (2018). (See R. 73; 81.) In his applications, Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since August 15, 2010, due to a combination of: high blood pressure; heart attack; back problems; and because he had “less than 1/3 of [the] muscle and tendons left in [his] right leg.” (Id.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims initially on August 6, 2013 (R. 80, 88), and again upon reconsideration on June 16, 2014. (See R. 103, 116.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge and on August 19, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney before Administrative Law Judge H. Munday (“the ALJ”). (R. 37-70.) Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert, Courtney Stiles, testified. (Id.) In a written decision dated November 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (See generally R. 19-31.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from “acute myocardial infarction by history, coronary artery disease, dysfunction of a major joint and muscular atrophy of the right leg, and degeneration of the lumbar spine and lumbosacral intervertebral disc, ” which qualified as severe impairments. (R. 21-22 (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. 22 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, & 416.926).)

         After consideration of the entire Record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b), except that

he can stand and walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday. He can frequently stoop and kneel. He can occasionally balance, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [He] can occasionally push and pull with his right lower extremity. He requires a sit/stand option at 30-minute intervals while remaining on task. [He] can have occasional exposure to vibration and occasional exposure to hazardous conditions, including unprotected heights and moving machinery.

(R. 23.) The ALJ concluded that, although Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, such as laundry worker, cashier, and electronics worker. (R. 30-31 (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. 31.) 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 April 25, 2017. (Id.)

         On June 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court to challenge the final decision of the Commissioner. (Compl. [ECF No. 2].) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred the case to the United States Magistrate Judge for consideration. The Commissioner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on February 21, 2018 [ECF No. 18]. On August 27, Judge Hoppe filed a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that I grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment and affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (R&R, Aug. 27, 2018 [ECF No. 20].) On September 10, Plaintiff filed timely objections to the R&R. (Pl.'s Obj., Sept. 10, 2018 [ECF No. 21].) The Commissioner responded on September 17 [ECF No. 22], so the matter is now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD OF 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 may 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff has lodged two objections: first, the Magistrate Judge erred in concluding that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's cane use; and second, the Magistrate Judge erred in concluding that the ALJ properly considered the ...


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