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Piziak v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

August 8, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. By Standing Order (Document 3) entered on September 15, 2016, this matter was referred to the Honorable Omar J. Aboulhosn, United States Magistrate Judge, for findings of fact and recommendations for disposition. On March 22, 2017, Magistrate Judge Aboulhosn submitted his Proposed Findings and Recommendation (PF&R) (Document 15), recommending that the Court deny the Plaintiff's request for judgment on the pleadings, grant the Defendant's request to affirm the decision of the Commissioner, affirm the final decision of the Commissioner, and dismiss this action.

         The Court has reviewed the Plaintiff's Objections to Proposed Findings and Recommendation (Document 16), as well as the original briefing, the administrative record (Document 8 and exhibits), and the PF&R. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the objections should be overruled.

         The Plaintiff, Pamela Piziak, filed an application for DIB on October 22, 2013. She claimed that she was disabled as a result of “hearing loss, knee replacement, bi-polar, fibromyalgia, arthritis [left knee], [and] sleep problems.” (PF&R at 2, quoting from Tr. at 145-46, 158.) Her claim was denied at each successive stage, and she timely sought judicial review.


         Disability under the SSA is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential inquiry to determine eligibility for social security disability benefits. If a claimant is determined not to be disabled at one step, the evaluation does not proceed to the next step. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653-54 (4th Cir. 2005)). The Fourth Circuit has summarized the five-step process as follows:

the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work.” (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). Id. at 635. If the claimant is able to perform his or her past work, the ALJ can find the claimant not to be disabled. Id. If the claimant is not able to perform his or her past work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, where “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that ‘exists in significant numbers in the national economy, ' considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429).


         The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to conduct a de novo review upon the record of any portion of the proposed findings and recommendations to which written objections have been made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Conversely, a district court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the findings or recommendation to which no objections are addressed. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985); see also Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983) (holding that districts courts may adopt proposed findings and recommendations without explanation in the absence of objections). A district court judge may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (2006). A district court's authority to choose among these options is independent of the statutory duty to afford review to those portions to which objections are addressed. See Camby, 718 F.2d at 199-200 (“If no objections were made, for example, it could hardly be argued that the judge must accept the [magistrate judge's] report if it contained an error of law apparent on its face.”). As such, it is wholly within the district court's discretion to accept, reject, or modify a magistrate judge's proposal irrespective of any objections by the parties. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980). Running parallel with district courts' discretion under the Federal Magistrates Act is the responsibility to ensure the just disposition of matters referred to magistrate judges. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 271 (1976); see also Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 683.

         Section 405(g) of the SSA provides, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ..” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “When examining an SSA disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964) (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). In making its determination, the Court must look to “the whole record to assure that there is a sound foundation for the Secretary's findings, and that his conclusion is rational.” Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1157-58 (4th Cir. 1971). When the Commissioner's decision clearly disregards the overwhelming weight of the evidence, the Court may modify or reverse the decision. Id.


         The Magistrate Judge set forth the Plaintiff's background and medical conditions, and the Court incorporates those findings by reference herein. In summary, Ms. Piziak taught middle school for about thirty-five years before retiring at around age sixty (60) at the onset of her alleged disability. She has a Masters' degree in education. Ms. Piziak cited her stress levels, anxiety, and panic attacks as reasons for leaving her job. She underwent a left knee replacement in 2013 and a right knee replacement in 2014. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but reported that it was in remission. She also had hypothyroidism, hypertension, moderate obstructive sleep apnea, and dry eye syndrome. The ALJ found that Ms. Piziak's degenerative joint disease and hearing loss constituted severe impairments, and that her mental health impairments and other chronic ailments were non-severe and caused little or no limitation in her functioning. Ms. Piziak's appeal focuses primarily on her hearing loss.

         The medical expert, Dr. Judith Brendemuehl, testified that Ms. Piziak's hearing loss was not at a listing level, but that she would need a “fairly quiet environment.” (PF&R at 13.) Ms. Piziak testified that her hearing bothered her in the classroom because students would laugh when she needed them to repeat themselves. She explained that her hearing aid batteries lasted only three to four hours, which doctors said was abnormal, but she did not complain about it because it was not a problem after she quit working. A doctor who performed a consultative examination “noted that [Ms. Piziak] wore bilateral hearing aids and responded to normal conversational volume.” (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ found that Ms. Piziak's hearing impairment did not meet the severity of the listing for a hearing impairment at Step Three, but found that she could “never have exposure to a loud noisy environment.” (Tr. at 16.) The vocational expert described Ms. Piziak's prior employment as a teacher as “code three, meaning just a regular - it's not a ...

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