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Reynolds v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

March 24, 2017




         On February 24, 2016, the plaintiff, Karen Sue Reynolds (“Reynolds”), filed a complaint seeking review of the adverse decision of the defendant, Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) (Dkt. No. 1). On January 25, 2017, the Honorable Michael J. Aloi, United States Magistrate Judge, issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that the Court deny Reynolds's motion for judgment on the pleadings, grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, affirm the Commissioner's decision, and dismiss this case with prejudice (Dkt. No. 14). Reynolds filed timely objections to the R&R (Dkt. No. 15).

         After considering the record, as well as Reynolds's objections, the Court REJECTS the R&R (Dkt. No. 14), GRANTS Reynolds's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. No. 9), DENIES the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 11), REVERSES the Commissioner's decision under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), and REMANDS Reynolds's treating physician and credibility claims to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). As part of its review of the R&R, the Court incorporates by reference Magistrate Judge Aloi's thorough recitation of the facts surrounding Reynolds's disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) claims, as well as his articulation of the Commissioner's five-step evaluation process (Dkt. No. 14 at 2-23).

         Reynolds was born on February 18, 1963, and was 49 years old at the time she filed her DIB and SSI claims on June 6 and June 18, 2012, respectively (Dkt. No. 7-5 at 15). She initially alleged a disability onset date of March 1, 2009, but later amended that date to April 1, 2011. Id. at 17. At the time, she was unemployed, but had previously worked as an assistant manager at Family Dollar. She had also worked as a cashier at a convenience store, a cook, a nursing home aide, and a hotel front desk clerk (Dkt. No. 7-6 at 4). Reynolds alleged that a number of limitations prevented her from working, including congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, knots in her arms and legs, and depression. Id. at 3.[1]Reynolds also indicated a history of sometimes passing out and going into convulsions (Dkt. No. 7-6 at 9).

         The Commissioner denied Reynolds's claims at both the initial and reconsideration levels (Dkt. No. 1 at 1). Upon Reynolds's request, Administrative Law Judge Brian W. Wood (“ALJ”) held a hearing on April 1, 2014, following which he denied Reynolds's claim (Dkt. No. 7-2 at 18, 32). Reynolds appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which declined review on January 5, 2016 (Dkt. Nos. 1 at 1; 7-2 at 2).

         Thereafter, on February 24, 2016, Reynolds filed suit in this Court, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's final decision (Dkt. No. 1 at 1). In her complaint, Reynolds argued that the Commissioner committed reversible error by (1) failing to comply with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927 when he assigned “little weight” to the medical opinion of her treating physician Stephen Thompson, D.O. (“Dr. Thompson”), and (2) making a deficient credibility determination, which rendered his decision unsupported by substantial evidence (Dkt. No. 10 at 14, 18).

         In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Aloi rejected Reynolds's contentions (Dkt. No. 14). First, he found substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision to afford little weight to Dr. Thompson's opinion, and also found that the ALJ had sufficiently explained his decision so as to permit meaningful review. Id. at 34. Second, he found that the ALJ had properly assessed Reynolds's credibility, and had supported his determination with substantial evidence. Id. at 34-37.

         Reynolds filed timely objections to the R&R, in which she argued that Magistrate Judge Aloi improperly supplied a post hoc rationalization for the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Thompson's opinion (Dkt. No. 15 at 2-4). In addition, she argued that the magistrate judge's conclusion that the ALJ's credibility determination was valid was erroneous. (Dkt. No. 15 at 4-5).


         A. The Magistrate Judge's R&R

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c), this Court must review de novo any portion of the magistrate judge's recommendation to which objection is timely made. The Court, however, will uphold those portions of the R&R to which no objection is made unless they are “clearly erroneous.” See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005). Because Reynolds filed objections to the R&R (Dkt. No. 15), this Court will review de novo all those portions of the R&R to which she has objected.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The question presented is not whether Reynolds is disabled. See Mayer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). Judicial review of a final decision regarding disability benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether the ALJ correctly applied the law. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Milburn Colliery Co. v. Hicks, 138 F.3d 524, 528 (4th Cir. 1998). It is the duty of the ALJ, not the Court, to make findings of fact and resolve disputed evidence. King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979).

         Substantial evidence is that which a “reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation omitted)). That “two inconsistent conclusions” may be drawn “from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Sec'y of Labor v. Mut. Mining, Inc., 80 F.3d 110, 113 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Conolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966) (internal quotation omitted)).

         “An ALJ may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion, but must articulate, at some minimum level, his analysis of the evidence to allow the appellate court to trace the path of his reasoning. An ALJ's failure to consider an entire line of evidence falls below the minimal level . . . .” Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995) (internal citation omitted). The Court must be able to “track the ALJ's reasoning and be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence.” Id. at 308 (quoting Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995)).


         A. Dr. Thompson's Opinion

         Reynolds contends that the Court must remand this case because the ALJ failed to conduct a proper analysis or provide “good reasons” for discounting the medical opinion of Dr. Thompson, her treating physician (Dkt. No. 10 at 10-14). In his R&R, Magistrate Judge Aloi concluded that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence, especially evidence from the “particular category” on which he relied (Dkt. No. 14 at 29). Moreover, he concluded that the ALJ's explanation was sufficient to permit the Court to conduct a meaningful review. Id. at 34.

         Reynolds contends the magistrate judge improperly “searched the administrative record and found other evidence which he (deems substantial) and which (he determines) supported the ALJ's finding, even though the ALJ, himself, did not cite that evidence in support of his decision” (Dkt. No. 15 at 2). She accuses both the Commissioner and the magistrate judge of providing a post hoc rationale for the ALJ's decision when, in fact, the duty to provide sufficient reasoning rested with the ALJ. Id. at 3.

         1. Applicable Law

         If a claimant's severe impairments neither meet nor equal the severity of a listed impairment, as was the undisputed step-three determination in this case, the ALJ must then assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).[2] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The ALJ determines the claimant's RFC “based on all the relevant medical and other evidence, ” id., including medical opinions. Id. § 404.1527(b). “Medical opinions are statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity” of a claimant's “impairment(s), including [her] symptoms, diagnosis, or prognosis, what [she] can still do despite impairment(s), and [her] physical or mental restrictions. Id. § 404.1527(a)(1).

         A treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight so long as it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, ” and is consistent with the other evidence of record. Id. § 404.1527(c)(2); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). When a medical opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ should consider the following factors in deciding what weight to assign: (1) the examining relationship; (2) the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) supportability; (4) consistency; (5) specialization; and (6) other factors. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527(c). ...

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