United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
R. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
action was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Dwane
L. Tinsley for submission of proposed findings of fact and
recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636. On March 2, 2018, Judge Tinsley submitted his Proposed
Findings and Recommendations [ECF No. 15] (PF&R"),
recommending that the court grant the plaintiffs request for
judgment on the pleadings [ECF No. 10], deny the
defendant's request for judgment on the pleadings as
articulated in her brief in support of the Commissioner's
decision [ECF No. 13], reverse the final decision of the
Commissioner, and remand this case for further proceedings
pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The Commissioner filed an Objection [ECF No. 16] to the
PF&R. The claimant filed a Response [ECF No. 17].
reasons provided herein, the court SUSTAINS
the Commissioner's objections [ECF No. 16],
DECLINES TO ADOPT the PF&R [ECF No. 15],
DENIES the plaintiffs motion for judgment on
the pleadings [ECF No. 10], GRANTS the defendant's motion
for judgment on the pleadings as articulated in her brief in
support of the Commissioner's decision [ECF No. 13],
AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner, and DISMISSES this
matter from the court's docket.
claimant, Laura Ann Hawkins, filed an application for
disability insurance benefits on May 2, 2013, alleging
disability beginning February 13, 2012. The application was
denied initially on August 13, 2013, and upon reconsideration
on October 28, 2013.
to the claimant's request, a video hearing was held on
February 11, 2015. Administrative Law Judge John T. Molleur
(the "ALJ") presided. On March 3, 2015, the ALJ
issued his decision denying the claimant's application.
He found that the claimant satisfied step one of the
sequential evaluation because she has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of
February 13, 2012, and she meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30,
2017. Tr. Proceedings 13 [ECF No. 9-2] ("Tr."). As
to the second step, the ALJ found that the claimant suffers
from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, bilateral hip
bursitis, diabetes, migraines, and obesity. Id. As
to the third step, the ALJ concluded that the claimant did
not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that
met or medically equaled the level of severity of any listing
in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 16. The ALJ
next found that the claimant had a residual functional
capacity to perform light work with certain listed
limitations. Tr. 17. At step five, and on the basis of the
testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that the
claimant could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy, such as a cashier, fast food worker,
and customer service cashier I/head cashier. Tr. 24-25. On
this basis, the claimant's application was denied.
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner on July 28, 2016, when the Appeals Council
denied the claimant's request for review. Tr. 1. The
claimant filed this action seeking judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision on September 26, 2016. Compl.
[ECF No. 1].
Standards of Review
Review of the PF&R
district court "shall make a de novo determination of
those portions of the report or specified proposed findings
or recommendations to which objection is made." 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). This court is not, however,
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. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S.
140, 150 (1985).
Review of the ALJ's Findings and Decision
Social Security Act states that "[t]he 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). The Supreme Court has defined substantial
evidence as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (l97l)
(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S.
197, 229 (1938)). "It consists of more than a mere
scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a
preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d
640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). "In reviewing for substantial
evidence, [the court should] not undertake to re-weigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute [its] own judgment for that of the
[Commissioner]." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907
F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). Rather, the court must
adopt the Commissioner's findings if there is evidence in
support of such findings "to justify a refusal to direct
a verdict were the case before a jury." Blalock v.
Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972).
"Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to
differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the
responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner]
(or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ)."
Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987).
Thus, even if the court would have reached a different
decision, it must nonetheless defer to the conclusions of the
ALJ if such conclusions are bolstered by substantial evidence
and were reached through a correct application of relevant
law. See Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
claimant "bears the burden of proving that he is
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act."
English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir.
1993) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); Hall v.
Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981)). Disability
is 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. §
order to determine whether an individual is disabled, the
Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process.
See 2Q C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a).
[T]he 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).
The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through
four, and the Commissioner bears the burden at step five. If
an individual is found "not disabled" at any step,
further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. §§
Review of PF&R
Magistrate Judge recommended remand on the basis that the ALJ
did not specify the frequency or intensity required under
Listing 11.03, and that he did not identify why he determined
that the claimant's migraines did not meet or equal the
Listing. See PF&R 6-7 [ECF No. 15]. The
Commissioner argues that (1) to the extent the Magistrate
Judge's recommendation is based on the ALJ's failure
to state verbatim the requirements of Listing 11.03, he was
not required to do so! and (2) to the extent the Magistrate
Judge's recommendation is based on the ALJ's failure
to set forth a detailed reasoning in the step-three section
of his decision, the ALJ set forth substantial evidence
supporting his step-three determination throughout the
entirety of his decision. See Def's Obj. R.
& R. 2, 5 [ECF No. 16]. The court agrees.
the third step of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must
determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or
equals any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart
P of the Administrative Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d)). The listings set out in the appendix "are
descriptions of various physical and mental illnesses and
abnormalities, most of which are categorized by the body
system they affect. Each impairment is defined in terms of
several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test
results. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 529-30
are not required to explicitly identify and discuss every
possible listing. Ezzell v. Berryhill, 688 Fed.Appx.
199, 200 (4th Cir. 2017). However, "[w]hen there is
'ample evidence in the record to support a
determination' that the claimant's impairment meets
or equals one of the listed impairments, the ALJ must
identify 'the relevant listed impairments' and
compare 'each of the listed criteria to the evidence of
[the claimant's] symptoms.'" Id.
(citing Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1172-73 (4th
ALJ's explanation for their step-three determination is
insufficient if they state only that they considered the
listing of impairments and 'offer [ ] nothing to reveal
why they made their determination."
McDaniel v. Colvin, No. 2:14-cv28l57, 2016 WL
1271509, at *4 (S.D. W.Va. Mar. 31, 2016) (quoting Fox v.
Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 750, 755 (4th Cir. 2015)). The
"insufficient legal analysis makes it impossible for a
reviewing court to evaluate whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's findings." Johnson v.
Berryhill, No. 2:i7-cv01608, 2018 WL 1096463, at *10
(S.D. W.Va. Feb. 1, 2018), adopted by 2018 WL 1095581
if the ALJ's opinion read as a whole provides substantial
evidence to support the ALJ's decision at step three,
such evidence may provide a basis for upholding the ALJ's
determination." McDaniel, 2016 WL 1271509, at
*4 (citations omitted); see Six v. Colvin, No.
3:i5-cvl4377, 2016 WL 7040850, at *2-3 (S.D. W.Va. Dec. 1,
2016). ALJs only need to "review medical evidence once
in [their] opinion[s]." McDaniel, 2016 WL
1271509, at *4 (quoting McCartney v. Apfel, 28
Fed.Appx. 277, 279 (4th Cir. 2002)). Thus, "[a] cursory
explanation in step three is satisfactory so long as the
decision as a whole demonstrates that the ALJ considered the
relevant evidence of record and there is substantial evidence
to support the conclusion." Id. (citations
step three section of his decision in this case, the ALJ
The claimant's migraines are most closely evaluated under
Section 11.03 of the Listings. However, the claimant's
migraines do not meet or equal the criteria of the listing
because there is no evidence they occur with the frequency or
intensity required by the ...