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Criss v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

June 26, 2017

RAYMOND LEE CRISS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING AND AFFIRMING MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION, GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND OVERRULING PLAINTIFF'S OBJECTIONS

          FREDERICK P. STAMP, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Procedural History

         The plaintiff, Raymond Lee Criss, filed an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. In the application, the plaintiff alleged disability since September 18, 2012. The plaintiff alleges that he is unable to work due to the following ailments: (1) hypertension, (2) edema, (3) dyspnea, (4) morbid obesity, (5) nicotine dependence, (6) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), and (7) lower back pain. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration. The plaintiff then appeared with counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). At the hearing, the plaintiff testified on his own behalf, as did an impartial vocational expert and an impartial medical expert. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision to the plaintiff, finding that he was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The plaintiff then timely filed an appeal of the decision to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review.

         The ALJ used a five step evaluation process pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1420 and 416.920. Using that process, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 18, 2012, the date of his application; (2) the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obstructive sleep apnea, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, hearing loss, report of peripheral neuropathy, and obesity; (3) none of the plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) the plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work; and (5) “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Therefore, the ALJ found that the plaintiff did not have a disability as defined under the Social Security Act.

         The plaintiff then filed a request for judicial review of the ALJ's decision in this Court. The case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. After consideration of those motions, the magistrate judge entered a report recommending that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, that the defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted, and that the case be dismissed with prejudice. The plaintiff filed timely objections to the report and recommendation. The defendant then filed a response to the plaintiff's objections.

         II. Applicable Law

         Because the plaintiff timely filed objections to the report and recommendation, the magistrate judge's recommendation will be reviewed de novo as to those findings to which objections were made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). As to those findings to which objections were not made, the findings and recommendations will be upheld unless they are “clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).

         III. Discussion

         As the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has held, “Under the Social Security Act, [a reviewing court] must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. A reviewing court “does not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; ‘[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ' we defer to the Commissioner's decision.” Thompson v. Astrue, 442 F. App'x 804, 805 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). Further, as the Supreme Court of the United States stated in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., “a finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” 333 U.S. 364, 395.

         The plaintiff argues in his motion for summary judgment that the defendant's decision is contrary to the law and is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) failed to properly consider the medical expert's testimony related to the plaintiff's two most disabling impairments, and (2) failed to properly consider the vocational expert's testimony indicating no jobs existed for an individual with the plaintiff's limitations.

         The defendant argues in his motion for summary judgment that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the law correctly. Specifically, the defendant contends that the ALJ: (1) properly considered the medical expert's testimony regarding the general treatment of edema and the frequency of urination related thereto, and determined that, with regard to the plaintiff, these limitations were not credible; and (2) properly relied on the vocational expert's testimony to the extent that edema and frequent urination were not credible limitations to the degree the plaintiff alleged based on the record as a whole. The defendant further contends that both the credibility assessment and the RFC determination are supported by substantial evidence.

         A. The ALJ's Assessment of the Plaintiff's Credibility Regarding Edema and Frequent Urination Due to his Diuretic Medication

         In his report and recommendations, the magistrate judge first found that the ALJ properly assessed the plaintiff's credibility regarding edema and frequent urination due to his diuretic medication. The magistrate judge found that the ALJ properly considered the seven factors set forth in Social Security Ruling 96-7p in arriving at his determination that the plaintiff was not entirely credible. Further, the magistrate judge concluded that the ALJ's credibility determination was sufficiently specific to make clear his reasoning in finding the plaintiff to be not entirely credible. The magistrate judge found that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden ...


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