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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

July 18, 2018

RYAN LEE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, 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, Ryan Lee Williams, received supplemental security income (“SSI”) as a child because he was disabled. Upon attaining the age of 18 years old, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) was required to redetermine the plaintiff's eligibility for SSI disability benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.987. The SSA determined that the plaintiff is not disabled under the rules set forth for redeterminations for individuals who attain age 18. The plaintiff challenged this finding, and the matter went before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who also determined that the plaintiff was not eligible for benefits under 20 C.F.R. § 416.987. The plaintiff filed an appeal of the decision to the appeals council. The appeals council denied the plaintiff's request for review and thus the decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         To evaluate the plaintiff's case, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating disability of adults as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. However, the ALJ noted that the first step, considering substantial gainful activity (20 C.F.R. § 920(b)), is not used for disability redeterminations for individuals who attain age 18. Using the remaining steps in the process, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) during the period at issue, the plaintiff has evidenced “the following severe impairments: insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; expressive and receptive language delays, borderline intellectual functioning, adjustment disorder, and auditory processing disorder;” (2) during the period at issue, none of the plaintiff's impairments, whether considered individually or in combination, “meet[] or medically equal[] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;” (3) during the period at issue, the plaintiff “has had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R.] 416.967(b), ” including several limitations; and (4) the plaintiff is capable of performing “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.” ECF No. 11 at 23-33. Therefore, the ALJ found that the plaintiff is not disabled.

         The plaintiff then filed a request for judicial review of the ALJ's decision in this Court. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule of Civil Procedure 9.02(a), this 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 and recommendation. In that recommendation, the magistrate judge recommended that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 14) be denied, the defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 15) be granted, the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed, and this 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 Fed.Appx. 804, 805 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)).

         The plaintiff argues in his motion for summary judgment that the ALJ incorrectly weighed the testimony of various witnesses. The plaintiff contends that the ALJ should not have relied on Dr. Gross, Dr. Capage, and Dr. Shaver, and that the ALJ should have given more weight to Mr. McCullough and Dr. Soule. The plaintiff raises several arguments in support of these claims, including: (1) that Dr. Gross was not board certified; (2) that several of the testifying doctors did not review the entire record; (3) that Dr. Gross was unreliable because he was paid to testify; (4) that Dr. Shaver's and Dr. Capage's opinions should be given less weight because the doctors only “signed off” on forms that non-experts filled out (citing Murphy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 5:16CV27, 2017 WL 959580, at *1 (N.D. W.Va. Mar. 13, 2017)); (5) that the testimonies of Mr. McCullough and Dr. Soule were supported by evidence in the record; (6) that the ALJ erred in giving “not great weight” rather than “no weight” to the opinions of Dr. Franyutti and Dr. Lateef; and (7) that Dr. Capage did not evaluate “Mr. Williams's 12.10-type impairments.” ECF No. 14-1 at 5-9, 11, ECF No. 17 at 4-6. Further, the plaintiff asks this Court to remand the case to a different ALJ because “the current ALJ abused her discretion by calling a medical expert.” ECF No. 14-1 at 10. The plaintiff contends that the ALJ “show[s] no desire to fairly adjudicate this claim” because the plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly applied the standards for evaluating opinion evidence. ECF No. 14-1 at 11.

         The defendant's motion for summary judgment asks this Court to affirm the decision of the ALJ. In the defendant's memorandum in support, the defendant addresses many of the points the plaintiff raised. First, the defendant points out that although board certification can give additional weight to a witnesses testimony, the ALJ can consider the testimony of witnesses who are not certified. ECF No. 16 at 5 (citing Garcia v. Colvin, No. CV 12-06542-MAN, 2014 WL 358396, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Jan 30, 2014)). Second, the defendant argues that it is not necessary for a medical expert to review the entire record. Third, the defendant argues that Dr. Gross's fee for testifying does not automatically make him unreliable, since the Social Security hearing system is not designed to be an adversarial system. Fourth, the defendant disputes the plaintiff's characterization of Murphy, arguing that the issue in Murphy involved the “sign off” by a doctor who was not involved in treating the claimant. Fifth, the defendant points to conflicting evidence to show that the ALJ relied on more than a mere scintilla to reach her evaluation of the opinions of Mr. McCullough and Dr. Soule. ECF No. 16 at 12-13. Finally, the defendant argues that remand to a new ALJ is not warranted because the plaintiff has not cited any supporting authority to show that either a new ALJ is appropriate or that calling a medical expert constitutes an abuse of discretion.

         In his report and recommendation, the magistrate judge noted that in a judicial review of the ALJ's decision, the appropriate standard of review is to determine whether “the ALJ applied the proper legal standards and whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” ECF No. 21 at 5 (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). The magistrate judge found that the ALJ properly relied on the opinions of Dr. Gross, Dr. Capage, and Dr. Shaver. As to Dr. Gross, the magistrate judge first noted that it is unclear why the plaintiff argues that the ALJ made an error by relying on Dr. Gross's opinion of the plaintiff's condition. The magistrate judge found that, while Dr. Gross concluded that the plaintiff's impairments were not severe, the ALJ concluded the plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments. Because the ALJ's conclusion gave the plaintiff the benefit of the doubt, the magistrate judge concluded that if this was an error, it did not prejudice the plaintiff. Second, the magistrate judge found that Dr. Gross did not need to be board certified for the ALJ to give his opinion weight. Third, the magistrate judge found that Dr. Gross was not required to review the entire record before rendering an opinion. Fourth, the magistrate judge found that the ALJ did not need to find Dr. Gross unreliable because he was paid to testify; medical experts are not automatically deemed biased because they are compensated. On this point, the magistrate judge noted that plaintiff's counsel had brought this same meritless argument in a previous case, and reminded plaintiff's counsel that raising meritless arguments could potentially result in sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.

         As to Dr. Capage, the magistrate judge first noted that the fact that Dr. Capage did not evaluate plaintiff's “12.10-type” impairments is irrelevant because the plaintiff does not contend that he satisfies Listing 12.10. The magistrate judge noted that arguments not raised in a motion for summary judgment are waived.

         Second, as to the plaintiff's argument that Dr. Capage's opinion is less reliable because he only “signed off” on a document, the magistrate judge found that the plaintiff's reliance on Murphy is misplaced because this case is distinguishable from Murphy. As to Dr. Shaver, the magistrate judge found the plaintiff's arguments rang hollow for reasons already stated; the doctor did not need to evaluate plaintiff's 12.10-type impairments or review the entirety of the record. The magistrate judge also addressed the opinions of Dr. Franyutti and Dr. Lateef, and found no ...


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