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Laura G. v. Saul

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

August 5, 2019

Laura G., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew M. Saul, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[2]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (dkts. 14, 26), the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (dkt. 21, hereinafter “R&R”), Plaintiff's objections (dkt. 22, hereinafter “Objections”), and the Commissioner's response thereto (dkt. 23, hereinafter “Response”). Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court referred this matter to Judge Ballou for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. Judge Ballou‘s R&R advised this Court to deny Plaintiff's motion and grant Commissioner's motion. The Court now undertakes a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which Plaintiff objects. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Farmer v. McBride, 177 Fed.Appx. 327, 330 (4th Cir. 2006). Because the objections lack merit, the R&R will be adopted.

         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. Id.

         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

         Plaintiff does not object to the R&R's recitation of the facts or claim history in this case, and for that reason I incorporate that portion of the R&R into this opinion. (See R&R at 2-6). Briefly, Plaintiff filed for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act based on pain in her back, neck, left leg, and right wrist, as well as numbness in her left leg and right wrist, post carpal tunnel release on her left wrist, hypothyroidism, breathing problems, borderline intellectual functioning, and depression. (R&R at 2 (citing R 349, 379, 383)).[3] The ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing work that was available in the economy, and thus, Plaintiff was not disabled. (R&R at 3-4 (citing R 15-16)). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R&R at 4 (citing R 1-4)).

         Plaintiff lodges four objections to Judge Ballou's R&R. First, she contends that the R&R's conclusion that “the ALJ accounted for [P]laintiff's moderate impairment in concentration, persistence or pace” was erroneous because the ALJ's hypothetical questions to the vocational expert as well has her residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) findings “only address [P]lainiff's ability to perform work related activities and not [Plaintiff's] ability to sustain work activity as required” by the Fourth Circuit. (Objections at 1 (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015)). Second, Plaintiff argues that the R&R erred in concluding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to only give partial weight to Dr. Humphries. (Id. at 2-3). Third, Plaintiff contends that the R&R “erred in concluding the ALJ's assessment of [P]laintiff's allegations is supported by substantial evidence.” (Id. at 4). Finally, Plaintiff objects to the R&R's characterization of Plaintiff's arguments disputing the ALJ's physical RFC findings as “no more than disagreements with the ALJ's RFC determination [that] asks the court to reweight the evidence.” (Id. at 5).

         a. Mental Impairments Under SSR 96-8p

         In Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, she argued that the ALJ failed to properly assess her mental impairments as required by Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p. See Titles II and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims. The R&R rejected this argument, stating that the “ALJ explained why [Plaintiff's] moderate impairment in concentration, persistence, or pace did not translate into a limitation in the RFC beyond unskilled, simple, routine tasks, with no independent goal setting or decision-making.” (R&R at 8). Plaintiff objects to this conclusion, claiming it does not consider the ALJ's failure to question the vocational expert or make RFC findings relating to Plaintiff's ability to sustain work. (Objections at 1).

         SSR 96-8p “explains how adjudicators should assess” RFC, and “instructs that the [RFC] ‘assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including functions' listed in the regulations.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34, 474, 34, 475 (July 2, 1996)). SSR 96-8p “further explains that the [RFC] assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). “Remand may be appropriate . . . where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Furthermore, where hypothetical questions posed to a vocational expert match the ALJ's findings regarding RFC, the hypothetical is “incomplete only if the ALJ failed to account for a relevant factor when determining” the RFC. Id. at 638

         Plaintiff relies heavily on Mascio to support her objections. In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit found remand appropriate because the ALJ “said nothing about [the plaintiff's] ability to perform [certain functions] for a full workday, ” leaving the court to “guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [the plaintiff's] ability to perform relevant functions”. Id. at 637. In Mascio, the Court also held that “an ALJ does not account for a claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work.” Id. at 638. However, the Court stated that had the ALJ found that “the concentration, persistence, or pace limitation does not affect [the plaintiff's] ability to work . . . it would have been appropriate to exclude it from the hypothetical tendered to the vocational expert.” Id. Because the ALJ in that case failed to give such an explanation, remand was in order. Id.

         As the R&R correctly points out, this is not a case like Mascio, “where the ALJ summarily concluded that a limitation to simple, unskilled work accounts for the claimant's moderate impairment in concentration, persistence, and pace without further analysis.” (R&R at 8). Here, the ALJ notes Plaintiff's moderate limitations with regard to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. (R 16). The ALJ then completes an analysis of Plaintiff's daily activities, concluding that those tasks require “some concentration, persistence, and/or pace.” (Id.). Based on these findings the ALJ's RFC analysis states:

[Plaintiff's] borderline intellectual functioning and concentration deficits support limiting her to unskilled work. However, her negative findings, lack of aggressive treatment . . . and her retained abilities to care for her personal needs, cook, clean, care for her disabled husband, shop, pay bills, handle a checking account, read, watch television, and ...

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