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Prophet v. Saul

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

January 8, 2020

TROY NELSON PROPHET, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. HANNAH LAUCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Troy Nelson Prophet challenges the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his claim for Social Security Disability Benefits after finding he lacked disability. This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) prepared by the Honorable David J. Novak, then-United States Magistrate Judge, (ECF No. 20), addressing the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, (Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 16; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 19). The R&R recommends that this Court deny Prophet's Motion for Summary Judgment, grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and uphold the final decision of the Commissioner. Prophet objects to the R&R (the “Objection”). (Pl.'s Obj. R&R, ECF No. 21.) The Commissioner responded to Prophet's Objection, (Def.'s Resp., ECF No. 22), and Prophet replied, (Pl.'s Reply, ECF No. 23). 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 sustain Prophet's Objection and reject the R&R. Accordingly, the Court will grant Prophet's Motion for Summary Judgment and motion to remand (the “Motion to Remand”), (ECF No. 17), deny the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and remand this case for further consideration in light of this Memorandum Opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The instant case involves Prophet's claim for Social Security Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act, alleging disability from a damaged disc in his back, leg pain, pinched nerves, and stomach problems, with an alleged onset date of October 5, 2011. (R. 120.)

         On March 26, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) initially assigned to Prophet's case issued a written opinion finding that Prophet did not qualify as disabled. (R. 126- 44.) In that opinion, the ALJ stated that “[a]fter careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms.” (R. 134.) The ALJ concluded, however, that Prophet's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” (R. 134.) Prophet appealed, and the Appeals Council subsequently remanded Prophet's case for reconsideration because (1) the exhibit list was incomplete; and, (2) the vocational expert gave erroneous testimony regarding the jobs available to individuals, like Prophet, who can perform “work within the unskilled light occupational base.” (R. 151-52.)

         On July 5, 2017, after remand, a different ALJ issued a second written opinion finding that Prophet had a “residual functional capacity for the full range of sedentary work” and concluded he was “not disabled.” (R. 22-34.) Regarding Prophet's accounts of his pain and in reaching the residual functional capacity, the ALJ stated:

[T]he undersigned has considered all symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1529 and 416.929. The longitudinal record is not consistent with the claimant's and his wife's allegations regarding the severity of his symptoms and limitations, and he has not received the type of treatment that one would expect for an individual asserting a completely disabling condition. The record indicates that the claimant is obese with BMIs in the 30s and that he alleges knee pain, with some clinical and radiological findings in 2011 and early 2012. However, he had minimal treatment at that time. In fact, from July 2012 to December 2013, the claimant received no treatment. After December 2013, the claimant had synovitis found on arthroscopy, with significant improvement noted on examination after surgery. Even so, he took more narcotics than were prescribed, and he was getting narcotics from multiple providers. The imagery and testing evidence does not provide objective support for an impairment that could reasonably produce the extent or intensity of the claimant's expression of ongoing subjective pain. Despite alleging significant functional limitations, repeated physical examinations have failed to reveal significant ongoing neurological deficits of decreased strength or range of motion, as would be expected with the degree of limitation alleged. In fact, the claimant's examinations documented inconsistent effort. The claimant's treatment has been generally routine, conservative, and unremarkable, no surgery for his back has been recommended, and there has been no ongoing orthopedic or pain management treatment without significant gaps. The claimant is in reasonably good health. The record as a whole does not establish that he is so limited that he cannot work at all, even though his earning record[] is not indicative of an individual with a clearly demonstrated work ethic. The above limitations for light exertion work with postural limitations would fully accommodate his left knee impairment and obesity.

(R. 30.) After the Appeals Council denied Prophet's administrative appeal, he sought review in this Court.

         In his appeal to this Court, Prophet argued, inter alia, that the ALJ erred when he failed to conduct a legally sufficient pain analysis, as required by Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585 (4th Cir. 1996), and such error requires remand. (Mem. Supp. Motion Summ. J. 5-7, ECF No. 18.) In response, the Commissioner never argued that the ALJ made an express step one finding but asserted that “Craig stands for the proposition that the ALJ's decision, as a whole, must be sufficiently explicit to allow the Court to conduct meaningful judicial review of the ALJ's two-part credibility analysis.” (Def's Mot. Summ. J. 17, ECF No. 19.) The Commissioner relied on Nelson v. Apfel, 166 F.3d 333 (4th Cir. 1998), to argue that the “absence of an express part one finding does not constitute per se reversible error.” (Id.) The Commissioner claimed that Nelson directly applied to the case at bar and provided “clear guidance” for the “Fourth Circuit's own interpretation of Craig.” (Id. 18.)

         The R&R recommended following Nelson for the proposition that an ALJ need not make an express step one finding in the two-step Craig inquiry. (R&R 20.) The R&R concluded that, in Prophet's case, the “ALJ appropriately considered [Prophet's] medically determinable impairments and whether they could reasonably cause the pain and other symptoms alleged by [Prophet], ” as step one requires, because the ALJ “considered all of [Prophet's impairments at step two of the Craig analysis.” (R&R 20-21.) The R&R declined to recommend remanding “on such a minor point” and noted that a handful of district courts outside of the Eastern District of Virginia have “affirmed similar applications of the Craig analysis.” (R&R 20.)

         In the Objection, Prophet asserts that the ALJ and the then-Magistrate Judge erred because the ALJ did not make a legally sufficient finding in accordance with the first step of the two-step pain assessment. (Pl.'s Obj. 1-2, ECF No. 21.) Prophet contends that, in contravention to United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit precedent, “the ALJ failed to consider [certain medical] opinions and failed [to] explain why he rejected them.” (Id. 2.) Prophet asserts that many courts throughout the Fourth Circuit have reversed ALJ decisions for failing to make express findings for each step of the two-step pain assessment. (Id. 3.) Because the ALJ never discussed whether objective medical evidence could reasonably be expected to cause the pain Prophet alleged, Prophet maintains that the ALJ committed a legal error. (Id. 7.) Prophet also questions how the ALJ weighed certain opinions and clinical findings “in the [ALJ's] conclusory and extremely brief reasoning.” (Id. 7-11.) Prophet therefore asks this Court to reject the R&R and to remand the case for further proceedings. (Id. 11.)

         II. 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.'”[4] Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). 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).

         B. Evidentiary ...


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