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Justin T. v. Saul

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

September 27, 2019

Justin T., [1] Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [2] Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the parties’ motions for summary judgment (Dkt. 12, 19), the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (Dkt. 24), and Plaintiff’s objections to the R&R. (Dkt. 25). Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court referred this matter to Magistrate Judge Ballou for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. Judge Ballou filed his R&R, advising this Court to deny Plaintiff’s motion and grant the Commissioner’s motion. (Dkt. 24). Plaintiff filed timely objections, obligating the Court to undertake a de novo review of the R&R. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Farmer v. McBride, 177 Fed.App’x 327, 330 (4th Cir. 2006). Because the objections lack merit, the Court will adopt Judge Ballou’s R&R in full.

         I. Standard of Review

         A district court’s review of a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation is undertaken de novo. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Farmer v. McBride, 177 Fed.App’x 327, 330–31 (4th Cir. 2006). While the Court gives no deference to the magistrate judge’s proposed findings and conclusions of law in the R&R, this Court must uphold the factual findings of the Administrative Law Judge (“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); Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019); Bird v. Comm’r of SSA, 669 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Under this standard of review, the Court must “look[] to an existing administrative record and ask[] whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence’ to support the [ALJ’s] factual determinations.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations omitted). 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) (internal citations omitted). “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

         Because Plaintiff does not object to the R&R’s recitation of the factual background and claim history in this case, the Court incorporates those portions of the R&R into this opinion. (See R&R 3–5). By way of summary, Plaintiff was found to be disabled by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on April 1, 2008 due to respiratory failure caused by shunt infection. R. 51. On December 3, 2014, the SSA determined Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of that date. R. 153. After this decision was upheld on reconsideration, R. 171–78, Plaintiff filed a request and appeared before Administrative Law Judge David Lewandowski (hereinafter “the ALJ”) on June 1, 2016. (Dkt. 13 at 1 (citing R. 94–128)), and again on April 4, 2017 after receiving a consultative physical examination. Id. at 2 (citing R. 129–52). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following impairments: “hydrocephalus status-post ventriculoperitoneal shunt; lumbar spine degenerative disc disease status-post laminectomy; cervical strain; obesity; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; blind spot in left eye; hypertension; major depressive disorder; bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder.” (Dkt. 24 at 4 (citing R. 51). After determining that these impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, R. 52–55, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of sedentary work. R. 56.

         In determining whether Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ was required to work through an eight-step framework:

The Commissioner is required to ask, in sequence, whether: (1) the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (3) the claimant has medically improved; (4) the medical improvement is related to the ability to work; (5) there is an exception to medical improvement that applies; (6) the claimant has current impairments in combination that are severe; (7) the claimant’s residual functional capacity based on the current impairments and if he can perform past relevant work; and (8) whether other work exists that the claimant can perform, given his residual functional capacity and considering his age, education, and past work experience.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1594. As detailed in the R&R, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff to be capable of the following limited range of sedentary work:

[T]he ALJ found that [Plaintiff] can sit for one hour, stand for 30 minutes and walk for 30 minutes; sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand or walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday; lift or carry up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; frequently use foot controls with his right lower extremity; occasionally use foot controls with his left lower extremity; never climb, balance or crawl; occasionally stoop, kneel or crouch. The ALJ found that [Plaintiff] should avoid exposure to industrial hazards, unprotected heights, driving and loud noise. He can have occasional exposure to moving machinery, humidity, wetness, pulmonary irritants, extreme temperatures and vibrations. The ALJ found that [Plaintiff] has no peripheral vision and requires a cane to ambulate. He found that Justin can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and perform simple tasks, with occasional interaction with others.

(Dkt. 24 at 5) (internal citations omitted).

         Plaintiff’s sole objection to the R&R is that it errs in concluding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. (Dkt. 25 at 1). Plaintiff asserts that the R&R’s conclusion errs with respect to several aspects of the ALJ’s analysis and findings reached in the RFC; many of these errors were raised by Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and rejected by Judge Ballou. The Court will address each of these alleged errors in turn. For both the reasons stated below and those ably expressed in Judge Ballou’s R&R, Plaintiff’s objections will be overruled.

         1. Moderate impairment in concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace

         Plaintiff first objects to the R&R’s conclusion that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff’s moderate impairment in concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace was adequately accounted for in the RFC. (Dkt. 25 at 1). Plaintiff argues that there is a logical gap left unexplained between the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff had moderate impairments in concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace, and the ALJ’s conclusion in the RFC that Plaintiff was able to follow simple instructions and perform simple tasks. (Dkt. 25 at 1–4) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015)). However, Judge Ballou correctly points to several instances in the record where the ALJ considered evidence of Plaintiff’s ability to both perform tasks and stay on tasks, and the ALJ had subsequently determined that-despite Plaintiff’s moderate impairment in concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace-he is capable of following simple instructions and performing simple tasks throughout the work day. (Dkt. 24 at 14) (“The ALJ relied upon the conclusions of Drs. Gardner, Kadian and Jennings that despite his moderate impairments in concentration, persistence or pace, [Plaintiff] can perform simple, routine tasks consistently for an 8-hour workday.”); see also R. 54. The ALJ also gave “significant weight” to Dr. Gardner who stated, after completing a psychological evaluation and report in 2014, that Plaintiff was capable of completing a normal workday or ...

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