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Root v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

November 25, 2013

CAROL E. ROOT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1]Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant


James G. Welsh U.S. Magistrate Judge

Carol E. Root brings this civil action challenging a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the agency”) denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, as amended (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of the court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


Claiming disability due to “blood clot, right hip, bone spurs, swelling in ankle and problems with left hand, ” on June 9, 2009 Ms. Root filed her current claim for DIB alleging a period of disability starting on May 31, 2003.[2] (R. 16, 215-218, 238) This current claim was denied initially on September 23, 2009. (R. 16, 89-97) On February 19, 2010 it was denied on reconsideration (R. 16, 98-107), and following an October 19, 2010 administrative hearing by written decision of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) dated January 28, 2011 it was denied for a third time. (R. 16-30, 35-88) With the Appeals Council’s subsequent denial of her review request (R. 1–3), the unfavorable ALJ decision now stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

Along with her Answer (docket #8) to the plaintiff’s Complaint (docket #3), the Commissioner has filed a certified copy of the Administrative Record (“R.”) (Docket #10), which includes the evidentiary basis for the findings and conclusions set forth in the Commissioner’s final decision. Each party has moved for summary judgment (docket #13 and #15) and filed a supporting memorandum of points and authorities (docket #14 and #16). Oral argument was conducted on August 5, 2013 with plaintiff’s attorney appearing in person and defendant’s attorney appearing telephonically (docket #18). By standing order this case is before the undersigned magistrate judge for report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).


In his written decision, the ALJ made his findings and conclusions pursuant to the agency’s five-step decisional process. He first determined that Ms. Root’s insured status for DIB benefits expired December 31, 2008. (R. 18) Although the plaintiff had had engaged in work activity after her alleged disability onset date of May 31, 2003, the ALJ determined that this work likely did not meet the level of work activity necessary to constitute substantial gainful activity as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1572.[3] (Id.) Consistent therewith and on the basis of a review of the entire administrative record, the ALJ next determined that none of the plaintiff’s medically determinable conditions (chronic venous insufficiency, obesity, and osteoarthritis), either singularly or in combination was a severe [4] impairment within the meaning of the Act. (R. 19-27) Nevertheless, the ALJ elected to proceed for the sake of argument and to insure a full record for review with the remainder of the agency’s sequential analysis. Based on this assumption arguendo and based on his further assessment of the record, the ALJ next concluded that that the plaintiff’s impairments neither met nor medically equaled any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR part 404, subpart P, appendix 1.[5] (R. 27) Proceeding on the assumption that the plaintiff’s impairments were severe, giving the plaintiff “the benefit of the doubt regarding limitations caused by her impairments” and consistent with the vocational evidence, the ALJ further determined that Ms. Root retained the functional capacity necessary to perform work, at a light level of exertion and retained residual functional ability to perform her past relevant assembly, inspection and quality assurance jobs. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (R. 28-30; see also R.84-85)


Based on a thorough review of the administrative record and for the reasons herein set forth, it is RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment be DENIED, the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment be GRANTED, an appropriate final judgment be entered AFFIRMING the Commissioner’s decision denying a period of DIB benefits, and this matter be DISMISSED from the court’s active docket.


The court's review in this case is limited to determining whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and whether they were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance” of the evidence. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is ‘substantial evidence.’” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642). The court is “not at liberty to re-weigh the evidence … or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).


Age, Education and Vocational Experience

Ms. Root was born in 1958, and she obtained a high school (or high school equivalent) education. (R.42, 44, 59, 111, 119) She worked as a quality assurance technician from 1978 until 2000. (R. 44-45, 83, 239) This work was described by the vocational witness as exertionally light and semi-skilled. (R.83) She worked as a food inspector during portions of 2001- 2002 (R. 59-60, 83, 239); this work was also exertionally light and semi-skilled (R. 83-84). From 2000 until 2004 she took care of her sister’s two young children (R. 18, 60-61); this activity was described by the vocational witness as exertionally medium and “at the low end of semi-skilled.” (R. 84) Her last full time employment began September 2005 as a temporary factory assembler and ended two months later, when she fell while on the job and injured her wrist. (R. 62-63, 83, 239) She was terminated from this sedentary and unskilled job one month later due to low efficiency. (R. 18, ...

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