Cobb v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER - This Court has carefully and independently reviewed the record in this case and the objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R&R"). Having done so, the Court finds that there is no meritorious reason to sustain Plaintiffs objections. After careful review of the Magistrate Judge's R & R, the Court does hereby ACCEPT and ADOPT the findings and recommendations set forth in the report of the United States Magistrate Judge fil ed March 15, 2016. The Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. The final Decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. The Court DIRECTS the Clerk to send a copy of this Order to the Parties. Copies distributed. Signed by District Judge Raymond A. Jackson on 8/8/2016. (cchr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
AUG - 8 2016
OSCAR VANN COBB,
ct^RK, u s. District court
CIVIL ACTION NO.: 2:15CV161
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of the Social
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This mailer is before ilie Court on Plaintiff s objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report
and Recommendation on OSCAR VANN COBB's (-Plaintiff^) action for judicial review on tlie
fmal decision ofthe Acting Commissioner ofthe Social Security Administration ('^Defendant")
denying Plaintiffs claim for child's insurance benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the
Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation C"R &R'') is ADOPI ED. Deiendant sMotion
for Summary Judgement is GRANTED and Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is
DENIED. ECFNos. 13, 11. The fmal decision ofthe Commissioner is hereby AFFIRMED.
1. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for child's insurance benelits based
on his deceased father's earnings. Plaintill alleges that he has been disabled due to sickle cell
anemia and other conditions since March 1, 1975. prior to his iwenly-second birthday on
September 15. 1987. R. at 12. 87, On December 22, 201L the Commissioner denied Plaintiffs
application initially, R. at 78-84, 87. and upon reconsideration on December 9. 2012. R. at 88-95,
97. Plaintiffsought an administrative hearing before aSocial Security Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ"). During the first hearing on February 13, 2013, Plaintift was unrepresented and
the hearing was continued to allow Plaintiff to obtain counsel and medical records from the
1970s and 1980s. R. at 28-38. Following the second hearing on September 23,2013, at which
Plaintiff was represented by counsel, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim for child's insurance
benefits, concluding that Plaintiff failed to meet his burden to prove he had adisability prior to
the age of twenty-two. R. at 12-19,41-60. On May 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiffs request to review the ALJ's decision. R. at 1. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the
final decision of the Commissioner.
Having exhausted all administrative remedies within the Social Security Administration,
Plaintiff filed acomplaint with the Court seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). On June 23,2015, the Court entered an order pursuant to 28
U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(B) directing United States Magistrate Judge Tommy E. Miller to conduct
hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to the Court areport containing proposed
findings of facts and recommendations. ECF No. 9. Magistrate Judge Miller ordered the parties
to file Motions for Summary Judgment and their respective memoranda. ECF No. 10. On
March 3, 2016, Magistrate Judge Miller filed his Report and Recommendation ("R &R") with
the Court. ECF No. 16. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the parties were given
fourteen (14) days from the date of the R&Rto object to its contents with the Court. On March
15, 2016 Plaintiff filed an objection to the R&Rto which Defendant responded on March 25,
2016. ECFNos. 17, 18. This matter is now ripe for judicial determination.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
When aparty timely objects to the findings and recommendations of amagistrate judge, a
district judge "must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge sdisposition that has
been properly objected to." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); see also Wimmer v. Cook, llA F.2d 68, 73
(4th Cir. 1985) ("[A]ny individual findings of fact or recommendations for disposition by him, if
objected to, are subject to final de novo determination ... by a district judge ...."). Under de
novo review, the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R & R") carries no
presumptive weight, and the district court may accept, reject, or modify the report, in whole or in
part, or may recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Fed. R. Civ. P.
72(b)(3); Halloway v. Bahsara, 176 F.R.D. 207, 209-10 (E.D. Va. 1997). When conducting this
de mvo determination, a district court judge must give "fresh consideration" to the relevant
portions of the magistrate judge's R & R. United Slates v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 675 (1980).
A court reviewing a decision made under the Social Security Act must determine whether
the factual findings 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; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than
a preponderance." Id. (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (first quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), then quoting Lam v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir.
1966)). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not reweigh conflicting evidence,
make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.
The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive
and must be affirmed. See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.
Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that substantial evidence supported the
Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") conclusion that Plaintiff had not been disabled under the
Social Security Act prior to the age of twenty-two. ECF No. 17. Specifically, Plaintiff argues
that the Magistrate Judge and the ALJ failed to analyze the documents provided by Dr.
Cassandra Jones, Dr. Rudy Kokich, and Dr. Vincent Lee that state Plaintiff was diagnosed with
sickle cell anemia and has been impaired by it since birth. Id. at 2. Plaintiff claims that because
the Magistrate Judge and the ALJ did not include references to specific quotes from those
doctors that their respective recommendation and decision did not include a detailed analysis of
the medical record. Id. Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to scrutinize whether
the doctors' statements referred to the period before Plaintiffs twenty-second birthday. Id. For
those reasons. Plaintiff moves to have the final decision of the Commissioner reversed, or, in the
alternative, remanded for further proceedings with the ALJ. Id. at 3. This Court has carefully
and independently reviewed the record in this case and the Plaintiffs objections to the
Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. Having done so, the Court finds that there are
no meritorious reasons to sustain the Plaintiffs objections.
To determine whether the claimant suffers from a disability, the ALJ must make a series
of sequential fact determinations to establish whether a claimant is eligible for disability benefits.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. As the regulations require, the ALJ must carefully consider whether
the disabilit)' claimant (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment;
(3) has an impairment that equals a condition contained within the Social Security
Administration's official listing of impairments; (4) has an impairment that prevents him from
past relevant work; and (5) has an impairment that prevents him from any substantial gainful
employment. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof on steps one through
four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). However, should the analysis reach step
five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id.
Here, the ALJ ended the analysis at step two ofthe inquiry finding that Plaintiff did not
establish a severe impairment prior to reaching age twenty-two. R. at 16-19. The ALJ must
consider the objective medical facts; the diagnoses and expert medical opinions of treating and
examining physicians; the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and the
claimant's background, work history, and present age. Hayes v. Gardner, 376 F.2d 517, 520 (4th
Cir. 1967). When evaluating medical opinions, the ALJ must consider "(1) whether the
physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and
the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician's opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion
with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d
650 (4th Cir. 2005); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1527. The opinion of atreating physician will be
given controlling weight only when it is supported by clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence. Craig, 76 F.3d at 590
(quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2)).
Plaintiffs objections challenge that the ALJ inappropriately weighed and inadequately
explained the medical opinions in the record. ECF No. 17. Plaintiffclaims that the ALJ did not
properly analyze the medical opinions of Dr. Jones, Dr. Kokich, and Dr. Lee, and did not include
those opinions in making the determination that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to turning
twenty-two. ECF No. 17, at 2-3. However, while the ALJ did not include quotations ofthese
various opinions, the ALJ explained his conclusions and why he weighed the opinions
differently. Even though these physicians were adult treating physicians ofPlaintiff, they were
not treating physicians ofPlaintiff during the relevant time period. R. at 18; see also Russell v.
Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec., 440 Fed. Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (holding ALJ did not err when
discounting the weight ofthe treating physician's opinion when the physician had not seen
patient for six months prior to disability assessment). Furthermore, as the ALJ indicates, there
was no corroborating evidence on the record of objective medical evidence or clinical and
laboratory techniques to support those opinions. Id As such, the ALJ appropriately did not
award those opinions with controlling weight. More importantly, the ALJ did consider these
opinions in finding that Plaintiff established amedically determinable impairment of sickle cell
anemia. Id. Rather than follow the state agency consultants' opinion that Plaintiff failed to
establish any impairment prior to age twenty-two. the ALJ, relied on a report from 1982 and the
congenital nature ofthe disease explained in the opinions ofDr. Jones, Dr. Kokich, and Dr. Lee
to determine Plaintiff was impaired by sickle cell anemia. Id. at 17.
The ALJ does not dispute Plaintiffs diagnosis of sickle cell anemia. He recognizes that
Plaintiff suffers from the impairment and has since birth. The ALJ questions the severity of the
impairment, not its existence. Id. at 17-18. While the opinion evidence on which Plaintiff relies
establishes presence ofan impairment, the presence ofthe impairment alone does not indicate
presence ofadisability under the Social Security Act, which requires '"inability to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason ofany medically determinable ... impairment which can
be expected to result in death orwhich has lasted or can be expected to last for acontinuous
period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1); .vet' Gross v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1163,
1166 (4th Cir. 1986) (holding that ailments and disorders do not qualify for disability without a
showing of related functional loss'). Plaintiff offers no objective evidence to support the
opinions of Dr. Jones, Dr. Kokich, and Dr. Lee, that Plaintiff suffered severe and frequent sickle
cell crises during the time period in question. The ALJ explained he "essentially has only a
diagnosis to consider.' R. at 17. 1he only medical evidence probative to the issue ofthe
severity of Plaintiffs sickle cell anemia within the relevant time period prior to September 14,
1987, is an examination from 1982 that cleared Plaintiff for participation in the Special
Olympics, /t/.at 17-18. While that report contained a diagnosis of sickle cell anemia, it only
rccognized minimal cardiomcgaly and clcared Plaintiff for the Special Olympics, hi. Due to the
lack of objective evidence and opinion evidence for the time in question, the ALJ had substantial
evidence sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate the conclusion that Plaintiff was
not disabled prior to the age of Iwenty-iwo.
This Court has carefully and independently reviewed the rccord in this case and the
objeciions to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation ("R & R"). Having done so,
the Court finds that there is no meritorious reason to sustain Plaintiffs objections. After careful
review of the Magistrate Judge's R & R, the Court does hereby ACCEPT and ADOPT the
findings and recommendations set forth in the report of the United States Magistrate Judge filed
March 15, 2016. The Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment is GI^NTED. The final Decision of the Commissioner is
The Court DIRECTS the Clerk to send a copy of this Order to the Parties.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
August / ^2016
Kay.n.ii>d A. iacks.^n
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