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Triplett v. Saul

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

October 15, 2019

KIMBERLY TRIPLETT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM ORDER

          M. HANNAH LAUCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Kimberly Triplett challenges the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her claims for Supplemental Security Income after finding she lacked disability. This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") prepared by the Honorable David J. Novak, United States Magistrate Judge, (ECF No. 18), addressing the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, (Pl.s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 14: Def/s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 16). The Magistrate Judge recommends that this Court deny Triplett's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and uphold the final decision of the Commissioner. Triplett objects to the R&R (the -'Objection"). (Pl.s Obj. R&R, ECF No. 19.) The Commissioner responded to Triplett's Objection. (Def.'s Resp., ECF No. 20.) The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).[1]

         For the reasons articulated below, the Court will overrule Triplett's Objection and adopt the R&R. Accordingly, the Court will deny Triplett's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         The instant case involves Triplett's claim for Social Security Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act, alleging disability from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. On January 18, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a written opinion finding that Triplett did not suffer from severe impairments, meaning that she did not qualify for disability benefits. (R. 15-22.) After the Appeals Council denied Triplett's administrative appeal, she sought review in this Court.

         In the Objection, Triplett asserts that the ALJ and the Magistrate Judge erred because they improperly classified Triplett's medically determinable impairments as non-severe. (Pl.'s Obj. 2, ECF No. 19.) Triplett contends that, because of that conclusion, the ALJ prematurely stopped the five-step review process at the second step of the required sequence and thereby incorrectly rejected her claim. (Id.) Triplett asks this Court to reverse the ALJ's decision because the "bar for considering an impairment severe is low," and to remand the case for further proceedings. (Id. at 3-4.)

         1. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Appellate Standard of Review

         This Court reviews de novo any part of the magistrate judge's R&R to which a party has properly objected. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C);[2] Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).[3] In doing so, "[t]he district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         Judicial review of a final decision regarding disability benefits requires that this Court '"uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.'" Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). "Substantial evidence is 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Brown v. Comm V Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)). Substantial evidence requires "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance." Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472).

         If substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision, or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)).

         B. Determining Eligibility for Benefits

         Because this case involves a decision determining eligibility for benefits, the Court reviews "whether the ALJ's finding ... was reached based upon the correct application of the relevant law." Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (citing Coffman, 829 F.2d at 517). The "[determination of eligibility for social security benefits involves a five-step inquiry.'* Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4), 404.1520.

         In step one, the "ALJ asks ... whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements." Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). The second step of the five-step sequential analysis, which Triplett challenges here, requires that the factfinder decide whether the claimant suffers from a "severe" impairment, irrespective of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). The Commissioner has issued regulations that define the scope of the term "severe impairment":

If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe ...

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