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Walker v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

January 14, 2014

SONYA DENISE WALKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. TURK, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Sonya Denise Walker ("Plaintiff" or "Walker") brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's ("the Commissioner") final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Both Walker and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 10, 15. Neither party has requested that a hearing be held and the motions are now ripe for disposition.

Walker raises two primary grounds for relief in her appeal and in support of her contention that the Commissioner's final decision is not supported by substantial evidence. First, she argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to properly evaluate the medical source opinions of two of her treating health care providers, Dr. Knotresha Stewart and Nancy O'Neill, FNP. Second, she contends that the Commissioner's decision fails to adequately take into account medical evidence Walker submitted to the Appeals Council following the ALJ's decision. She posits that the record as a whole, including that additional evidence, renders the ALJ's decision unsupported by substantial evidence.

For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's final decision. 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 the Commissioner reached those findings through application of the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hancock v. Astrue , 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012).

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); Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472. 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). If the Commissioner's determinations are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, 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).

Walker 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)(2006)). 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) and 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;[2] (4) can return to her past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether she can perform other work. Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983); Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). 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).

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Procedural Background

Walker applied for both DIB and SSI and initially alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2004. R. 188, 194. At the hearing, she amended her onset date to October 30, 2008. R. 31-32, 38. As acknowledged by her counsel at the hearing, the amended onset date resulted in the dismissal of her DIB claim because her date last insured for DIB purposes was March 31, 2007, and she could not obtain DIB benefits based on an alleged onset date of October 30, 2008. Id . Her claims were denied on both initial review and on reconsideration. R. 104-25, 129-40.

After a hearing on August 17, 2010, ALJ Geraldine Page issued a decision on August 23, 2010, finding that Walker was not disabled due to her ability to perform light work, with specific additional limitations. The ALJ relied on the vocational expert's testimony that the residual functional capacity found by the ALJ would allow Walker to perform the requirements of occupations such as laundry worker, housekeeper/cleaner, and small parts assembler, all of which are available in substantial numbers in the local and national economies. See generally R. 24 (decision of ALJ).

In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ properly utilized the five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520) (setting forth the five steps). The ALJ first determined that Walker meets the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2007 and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since at least October 30, 2008, the amended alleged onset date. R. 17. At the second step, the ALJ also concluded that Walker has the following severe impairments: obesity, anxiety disorder, history of polysubstance abuse, arthralgias/degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, and borderline intellectual functioning, but that none of her impairments or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the severity of any listed impairment. R. at 17-18. The ALJ also noted that Walked alleged "visual problems, foot problems, heart problems, right hand problem, and residuals of gunshot wound to the left hand." Id . at 18. The ALJ concluded that these problems were not severe impairments, however, because there the record contained "no objective medical evidence that the[se] conditions cause significant work-related limitations." Id.

Based on the evidence before her, including all the medical evidence at that point, the ALJ determined that Walker had the residual functional capacity to perform the light work "except for that which consists of more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks or requires more than occasional crouching, climbing, or interaction/cooperation with co-workers or the general public." R. 19. Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined, at the fourth step, that Walker was not capable of performing any of her past relevant jobs, all of which were performed at the medium level of exertion. R. 22. The ALJ determined, however, that Walker was capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 23. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Walker was not disabled under the Act.

After the ALJ issued her decision and while Walker's request for review was pending before the Appeals Council, Walker submitted additional medical records and evidence, as described below. The Appeals Council stated that it considered the new evidence, but nonetheless denied Walker's request for review without further explanation. R. 3-6. Walker sought reconsideration of the Appeals Council's denial of her request for review, which the Appeals Council denied on October 19, 2012. R. 1-2. Walker timely filed this Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.

B. Medical and Other ...


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