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Wooldridge v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

December 13, 2013

RUSSELL DAVID WOOLDRIDGE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. TURK SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Russell David Wooldridge (“Wooldridge”) brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn Colvin’s (“the Commissioner”) final decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Both Wooldridge and the Commissioner filed motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 10, 15. Oral argument was heard on October 25, 2013, and the motions are now ripe for disposition.

The ultimate issue before the Court is whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s final decision that Plaintiff can perform certain unskilled work and is therefore ineligible for DIB. Plaintiff claims that substantial evidence does not support the Commissioner’s final decision because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) posed an improper hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”) at the administrative hearing. Plaintiff asserts that reliance on the VE’s answer to the improper hypothetical caused the ALJ to improperly decide the case.

For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing the Commissioner’s final decision, the Court’s review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether they were reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). The Commissioner’s finding of any fact is conclusive provided it is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. Substantial evidence is not a “large or considerable amount of evidence, ” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citation omitted).

If the Commissioner’s determinations are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, but instead must defer to those determinations. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Accordingly, “[i]n reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ . . . . Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (internal alterations and citations omitted).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Wooldridge was born on March 7, 1951. R. 17, 137.[2] He was 57 years old at the time he alleges he became disabled on Jan. 1, 2009, and he is currently 62 years old, which places him in the category of an “individual with advanced age.” R. 17, 25, 137. He is a high school graduate who worked for the Roanoke County School Board from 1975 to 2005 as a school bus mechanic. R. 141, 171, 175. Wooldridge then worked as a security guard from 2006 to 2009. R. 61.

Wooldridge alleges that he became disabled from all forms of substantial gainful employment on January 1, 2009, R. 25, and that his disability continues to this day. He claims that he suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. R. 167. Wooldridge states that his disability forced him to retire early from his position with the Roanoke County School Board. R. 32, 167. Specifically, he claims that his bipolar disorder caused his inter-personal relationships at work to deteriorate, and he alleges that the medicine he took for the bipolar disorder caused him to be drowsy and negatively affected his work productivity. R. 31-32. Wooldridge also alleges that his disability prohibits him from working as a security guard, as his medication causes him to be drowsy and renders him unable to remain awake during shifts. R. 167.

Wooldridge filed an application for DIB under Title II and Title XVIIII of the Act on Oct. 2, 2009. R. 137. His claims were denied on both initial consideration and reconsideration. R. 78-82, 88-91. Thereafter, Wooldridge requested and received a hearing and review before an ALJ, which was held on Sept. 6, 2011. R. 22-52, 95-96. In an opinion dated Sept. 16, 2011, the ALJ denied Wooldridge’s requests for benefits after determining that, although he suffered from the severe impairments of “bipolar disorder under good medical control, dysthymic disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ” Wooldridge was not “under a disability.” R. 13-18. Specifically, the ALJ found that “[c]onsidering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”), there [were] jobs that exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant [could] perform.” R. 17. The Commissioner denied review of the ALJ’s decision, R. 1-6, and Wooldridge now appeals.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment argues that this Court should reverse the findings of the ALJ, as not supported by substantial evidence, because the ALJ improperly based his decision on the VE’s answer to a hypothetical the ALJ posed at the hearing. Plaintiff claims that this was erroneous for two reasons. First, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ’s hypothetical was unsupported by substantial evidence because it did not include the limitation, as reported by the consultative examiner, Dr. Gardner, that Wooldridge suffered from “marked impairment of concentration, persistence and pace.” ECF No. 11 at 4. Second, Plaintiff argues that, even if the ALJ discredited Dr. Gardner’s finding regarding Wooldridge’s status, he should have included his own finding that Wooldridge suffered from a “moderate impairment of concentration, persistence and pace” in the hypothetical posed to the VE. Id. at 6.

After reviewing the record in this case, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s arguments lack merit and that the Commissioner’s final ...


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