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Tickle v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

November 20, 2013

LINDA TICKLE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Linda Tickle ("Tickle") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ("Commissioner"), finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Specifically, Tickle alleges that the Commissioner erred by finding her impairments of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and peripheral neuropathy to be non-severe, and that the Appeals Council erred by not weighing all of the medical evidence in the record.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). This case is before me by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties have fully briefed all issues and the case is now ripe for decision. I have carefully reviewed the administrative record, the legal memoranda, and the applicable law. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Tickle does not suffer from a severe impairment. As such, I RECOMMEND DENYING Tickle's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16).


Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code authorizes judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). This court limits its review to determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Tickle failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act. "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

Tickle bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. English v. Shalala , 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)). The Act defines "disability" as 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability under the Act requires showing more than the fact that the claimant suffers from an impairment which affects her ability to perform daily activities or certain forms of work. Rather, a claimant must show that her impairments prevent her from engaging in all forms of substantial gainful employment given her age, education, and work experience. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate a disability claim. Walls v. Barnhart , 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). The Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether she can perform other work. Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983). The inquiry ceases if the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled at any step of the process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four to establish a prima facie case for disability. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the claimant maintains the Residual Functioning Capacity ("RFC"), considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform available alternative work in the local and national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Taylor v. Weinberger , 512 F.2d 664, 666 (4th Cir. 1975).

In cases such as this, where the claimant has submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council considered that evidence, this court must review the record as a whole, including the new evidence, to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioners findings. Wilkins v. Secretary, Dept of Health and Human Servs. , 953 F.2d 93, 95-96 (4th Cir. 1991).


Social and Vocational History

Tickle was born on July 30, 1949 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 31), and is considered a "person of advanced age" under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e). Tickle is insured through December 30, 2014 (R. 15); therefore she must show that her disability began before the end of her insurance period, and existed for twelve continuous months to receive DIB. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a). Tickle attended high school through the 10th grade, and received her GED. R. 31. She works part-time (30 hours a week) as a waitress. R. 32. Tickle reported that during the relevant period, she had the capacity to work as a part-time waitress, perform household chores and laundry, shop for groceries, eat most meals out, and care for an eight year old granddaughter on weekends. R. 37-40.

Claim History

Tickle filed for DIB on September 22, 2009, due to neuropathy of the feet and legs, with an alleged onset date of July 1, 2009. R. 117-18, 154. The state agency denied Tickle's application for disability benefits at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 61-65, 67-69. On January 6, 2011, ALJ Mark O'Hara held a hearing to consider Tickle's disability claim. R. 24-46. Tickle appeared at the hearing pro se, which included testimony from Tickle and vocational expert Gerald Wells, Ph.D. R. 24-26.

On March 23, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision denying Tickle's claims. R. 10-23. The ALJ found that although Tickle had hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and possible peripheral neuropathy, these conditions were not severe medical impairments which significantly limited her ability to perform work-related activities. The ALJ also found that Tickle's part-time work activity as a waitress constituted ...

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