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Thomaselli v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia, Clarksburg

September 19, 2019

MARCO RAFIEL THOMASELLI, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING AND ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          THOMAS S. KLEEH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiff, by counsel, seeks judicial review of the Defendant’s decision to deny his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security ACT [Dkt. No. 1]. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on July 24, 2012, with a date of last insured (“DLI”) of March 31, 2012 [Dkt. No. 13-2 at 13]. His application was denied on October 19, 2012, without subsequent appeal [Id.]. On July 11, 2014, Plaintiff made protective reapplication for benefits, and alleged ongoing disability since December 1, 2009, due to Crohn’s disease, asthma, high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), and “mental health” [Id.]. His reapplication for DIB was denied on res judicata grounds, and his remaining reapplication for SSI was denied initially and again upon reconsideration [Id.].

         The Plaintiff requested and the ALJ, Brian Crockett, held a hearing on March 7, 2017 [Dkt. No. 13-2 at 13]. At the hearing, Plaintiff moved to amend his date of disability onset from December 1, 2009, to January 1, 2013 [Id.]. However, because Plaintiff could not receive SSI until August 2014 (the month following the month during which the relevant underlying application was filed), Plaintiff’s disability status was only determined after the July 11, 2014, protective filing date of his most recent application for benefits [Id. at 13-14]. The ALJ determined, and Plaintiff concedes in his brief, that the relevant period on his SSI claim is August 1, 2014, through May 3, 2017 [Id.; Dkt. No. 18 at 4; Dkt. No. 16-1 at 2]. On May 3, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision to the Plaintiff, and the Plaintiff appealed [Id.]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review on March 20, 2018 [Dkt. No. 13-2 at 2], and the Plaintiff timely brought his claim before this Court on May 2, 2018 [Dkt. No. 1].

         In issuing his decision, 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 has not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since July 11, 2014, the protective filing date of his most recent application for SSI; (2) the Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma/COPD and Crohn’s disease; (3) none of the Plaintiff’s impairments met or medically equaled the severity of any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926); (4) the Plaintiff is capable of performing work activity that requires no more than a “medium” level of physical exertion, and involves no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, vibration, pulmonary irritants or hazards; and (5) “[c]onsidering the claimant’s age, level of education, work experience and prescribed residual functional capacity, he has remained capable throughout the period at issue of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers within the national economy” [Dkt. No. 13-2 at 16-24]. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have a disability as defined under the Social Security Act (“SSA”).

         By standing order of the Court, this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. Thereafter, Plaintiff and Defendant both filed motions for summary judgment [Dkt. Nos. 16, 17] and supporting memoranda. The Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment argues that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence.[1] Plaintiff contends that the ALJ (1) failed to properly follow the treating physician rule when he assigned little weight to the opinion of his treating gastroenterologist, and (2) failed to properly consider Plaintiff’s description of his symptoms which prevent him from being able to attend a job on a regular basis or stay on task while on the job [Dkt. No. 16-1]. The Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the ALJ’s decision and direct the SSA to make a finding of disabled as of the date of August 1, 2014 [Id. at 13-14]. In the alternative, the Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the ALJ’s decision and remand the case for further administrative proceedings [Id.].

         The Defendant’s motion for summary judgment argues that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the Defendant argues that (1) the ALJ provided well-supported reasons for the weight he accorded the opinions of Amandeep Purewal, M.D., Plaintiff’s treating gastroenterologist, and (2) the ALJ sufficiently articulated the reasons for his determination that Plaintiff was not entirely persuasive concerning the limiting effects of Crohn’s disease symptoms [Dkt. No. 18]. Defendant requests that the Court affirm the ALJ’s decision [Id.].

         The magistrate judge filed his Report and Recommendation (R&R) on January 24, 2019, concluding that the ALJ made no legal errors and that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s decision [Dkt. No. 20]. The R&R recommends that Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. No. 16] be denied, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. No. 17] be granted, and that this matter [Dkt. No. 1] be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiff timely filed objections[2] to the R&R on February 7, 2019 [Dkt. No. 21]. Defendant filed her response to those objections on February 19, 2019 [Dkt. No. 22].

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         A. Standard of Review

         The 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 recommendations to which no objections are addressed. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). In addition, this Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party “makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the Court to a specific error” in the magistrate judge’s recommendation. Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982).

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C), this Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge’s recommendation to which objection is timely made. As to those portions of a recommendation to which no objection is made, a magistrate judge’s findings and recommendation will be upheld unless they are clearly erroneous.

         B. Judicial Review of an ALJ Decision

         Although the Court will review the magistrate judge’s R&R under a de novo standard of review, this Court’s review of the underlying ALJ’s decision is limited. See Smith v. Schweker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). A “reviewing court must uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Brown v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017)(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987)(“A factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.”). The standard for substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(citation omitted); Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541, 543 (4th Cir. 1964)(“[s]ubstantial evidence has been defined innumerable times as more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance”).

         When analyzing whether the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, this Court must determine whether the ALJ “consider[ed] all relevant evidence.” Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439 (4th Cir. 1997). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). If “conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled,” the Court must defer to the Commissioner’s decision. Id.(citing Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)); see also Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012)(“Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.”).

         C. Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The Plaintiff bears the burden of proving to the Commissioner that she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993). When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ is directed to use the following five-step sequential process:

i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (See paragraph (b) of this section.)
ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of our impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (See paragraph (c) of this section.)
iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (See paragraph (d) of this section.)
iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (See paragraphs (f) and (h) of this section and § 404,1560(b)).
v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are ...

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