United States District Court, District of Columbia
JIMMY L. SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION [DKTS.## 11, 13]
RICHARD J. LEON United States District Judge.
Jimmy L. Smith ("plaintiff) has filed this suit against
the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
("SSA"). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a
decision of the SSA denying his application for disability
benefits and supplemental security income under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). On September 22, 2015, the case was referred
to Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson for full case
management. See Dkt. # 3. Before Judge Robinson,
plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment of Reversal [Dkt. # 11]
and the SSA filed a Motion for Judgment of Affirmance [Dkt. #
before this Court is Magistrate Judge Robinson's February
24, 2017 Report and Recommendation ("R & R")
for the above-captioned case. See Dkt. #17.
Magistrate Judge Robinson recommended that the Court deny
plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of Reversal and grant the
SSA's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. Pursuant to
Local Civil Rule 72.3(b), the parties were allowed 14 days to
file objections to the recommendations made by Magistrate
Judge Robinson. Not surprisingly, plaintiff objected to
Magistrate Judge Robinson's R & R. See
PL's Objections to R & R ("PL's Objs.")
[Dkt. # 18].
party objects to a magistrate judge's recommended
disposition, the Court reviews de novo those portions of the
recommendation to which an objection is made. Fed.R.Civ.P.
72(b)(3); LCvR 72.3(c). The Court may "accept, reject,
or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and
recommendations of the magistrate judge." LCvR 72.3(c).
Upon consideration of Magistrate Judge Robinson's R &
R, the parties' briefing, and the applicable case law and
legal standards, the Court hereby ADOPTS Judge Robinson's
recommendations, DENIES plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of
Reversal [Dkt. # 11], and GRANTS the SSA's Motion for
Judgment of Affirmance [Dkt. # 13] for the reasons briefly
facts are ably summarized by Magistrate Judge Robinson in her
report, see R & R at 1-3; therefore, only a
brief overview is necessary. In 2012, plaintiff submitted
applications to the SSA seeking disability insurance benefits
as well as supplemental security income. Administrative
Record ("AR") at 209-24 [Dkt. #9]. In his
materials, plaintiff stated that three conditions limited his
ability to work: a heart implant, high blood pressure, and
knee problems. Id. at 256. The SSA denied plaintiffs
applications and his requests for reconsideration in
September 2012 and January 2013, respectively. Id.
at 105-15, 143-54.
then sought and received a hearing before a SSA
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Following the
April 2014 hearing, the ALJ denied plaintiffs applications
for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income. See Id. at 34-53. To summarize. the ALJ
concluded that, although plaintiff had a number of
impairments, he had the "residual functional
capacity" ("RFC") to perform certain types of
sedentary work as defined in SSA regulations. Id. at
41 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a)).
Based on that RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that there
were a significant number of jobs in the national economy
that plaintiff could perform and that plaintiff therefore did
not suffer from a "disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act." Id. at 47. The SSA denied
plaintiffs request for review of the ALJ's decision.
See Id. at 1-7. Having exhausted his remedies before
the SSA, plaintiff proceeded to file the present action.
See generally Compl. [Dkt. # 1].
attacks the decision of the ALJ on three primary grounds.
First, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly
weigh the medical opinion evidence provided by plaintiffs
treating physicians when determining plaintiffs RFC. Second,
plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC finding that
plaintiff can perform limited sedentary work is not supported
by substantial evidence. Third, plaintiff contends that the
ALJ failed to properly evaluate plaintiffs credibility. In
her R & R, Magistrate Judge Robinson rejected plaintiffs
contentions. For all of the reasons discussed by Magistrate
Judge Robinson and briefly elaborated upon below, I agree
that plaintiffs claims fail.
begin, as Magistrate Judge Robinson noted, this Court will
affirm a decision by the SSA if it is "based on
substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies the
relevant legal standards." Butler v. Barnhart,
353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004); see also 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). That review is "highly deferential
to the agency fact-finder, requiring only 'such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'" Rossello ex rel.
Rossello v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 1181, 1185 (D.C. Cir. 2008)
(quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565
(1988)). When evaluating the decision of an ALJ, a reviewing
court "examines whether the ALJ has analyzed all
evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight"
given to "obviously probative exhibits."
Nicholson v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 895 F.Supp.2d 101,
103 (D.D.C. 2012) (internal quotation mark omitted). A
reviewing court "is not to review the case 'de
novo' or reweigh the evidence." Guthrie v.
Astrue, 604 F.Supp.2d 104, 112 (D.D.C. 2009). When
challenging an agency determination, the plaintiff
"bears the burden of demonstrating that the
Commissioner's decision was not based on substantial
evidence or that incorrect legal standards were
applied." Cunningham v. Colvin, 46 F.Supp.3d
26, 33 (D.D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks and brackets
first objects to the R & R's conclusion that the ALJ
permissibly weighed the medical opinion evidence in the
course of determining plaintiffs RFC. PL's Objs. at 2-4.
Under this Circuit's "treating physician rule,
" the opinion of a claimant's treating physician
regarding the claimant's disability is "binding on
the fact-finder unless contradicted by substantial
evidence." Butler, 353 F.3d at 1003 (internal
quotation marks omitted). Thus, an ALJ who "rejects the
opinion of a treating physician" must "explain his
reasons for doing so." Id. (internal quotation
marks omitted). Although an ALJ must explain "what
weight he attaches to the treating physician's
conclusions, or if he attaches none, his reason therefor,
" id. (internal quotation marks and brackets
omitted), an ALJ "need not accept medical opinions that
are internally inconsistent or contradicted by substantial
evidence in the record, " Warfield v. Colvin,
134 F.Supp.3d 11, 20 (D.D.C. 2015).
the ALJ chose to afford "very little weight" to the
opinions of plaintiffs treating primary care physician, Dr.
Onyeaghala. AR at 44. With respect to plaintiffs
cardiologist, Dr. Burris, the ALJ afforded "significant
weight" to the opinions regarding plaintiffs physical
limitations, but gave "less weight" to the
terminology employed by Dr. Burris - including Dr.
Burris's use of the term "permanent
disability." Id. at 45. Plaintiff contends that
the ALJ's treatment of the treating physician evidence
was improper. But as Magistrate Judge Robinson thoroughly
explains, the ALJ's determinations were supported by
substantial evidence. See R & R at 4-7. The ALJ
explained that Dr. Onyeaghala's opinions were
inconsistent with much of the evidence in the record and
found little support in the doctor's treatment notes or
treatment record. AR at 44. As for Dr. Burris, the ALJ
declined to afford weight to the doctor's use of legal
terminology. That decision was proper, as it is the agency,
not a claimant's physician, that is responsible for
making the legal determination that an individual is
permanently disabled as that term is defined by law.
See R & R at 7 (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(d)(1)). Moreover, the ALJ pointed out that Dr.
Burris's opinion that plaintiff "cannot do any
work" was contradicted by evidence in the record,
including Dr. Burris's own notes. AR at 45. I therefore
agree with Magistrate Judge Robinson that the ALJ's
treatment of the medical opinion evidence "is
'supported by substantial evidence in the record and is
adequately explained in the ALJ's decision as required by
law."" R & R at 7 (quoting Warfield,
134 F.Supp.3d at 20).
next objects to the R & R on the basis that it "does
not address" plaintiffs argument that the ALJ's RFC
finding is unsupported by substantial evidence. PL's
Objs. at 4. Upon review of the ALJ's RFC analysis,
however, I conclude that the ALJ's determination is
supported by substantial evidence. A claimant's RFC
"is designed to determine the claimant's uppermost
ability to perform regular and continuous work-related
physical and mental activities in a work environment."
Butler, 353 F.3d at 1000. In performing an
assessment of an individual's RFC, the ALJ must identify
the evidence that supports the RFC conclusion, "as well
as the reasons for rejecting medical opinions in conflict
with the ultimate RFC determination." Id.
case, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs RFC was limited to a
modified range of sedentary work. See AR at 41.
Plaintiff, who claims that he cannot perform even the limited
scope of work contemplated by the ALJ's RFC
determination, argues that the ALJ's finding is
inconsistent with plaintiffs testimony at the hearing and
plaintiffs treating physician evidence. As discussed
elsewhere in this opinion, however, the ALJ adequately
explained his choice to assign little weight to some of the
opinions of plaintiffs treating physicians and permissibly
determined that plaintiffs own statements were not credible.
It's therefore little surprise that those pieces of
evidence are not consistent with the ALJ's RFC
determination. Importantly, that is not to say that the
ALJ's RFC conclusion lacked support in other record
evidence. To the contrary, the ALJ discussed numerous pieces
of evidence throughout his opinion that supported his
ultimate RFC conclusion. That evidence includes, but is not
limited to, the fact that plaintiff worked as a custodian
after receiving a pacemaker in 2008 and only stopped working
because his contract ended, AR at 43, 64; the fact that
plaintiff had not been prescribed assistive devices for
movement or stability and had been on a relatively
conservative treatment regimen, id. at 40, 42; the
fact that the consultative physical examiner did not find
evidence of certain maladies when examining plaintiff,
id. at 42-43; and the fact that plaintiff testified
that he engaged in numerous activities - such as using public
transportation, grocery shopping, and performing household
chores - that the ALJ concluded "do not substantiate an