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Johnson v. Colvin

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

January 15, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ROBERTS S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Deborah K. Johnson ("Johnson") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") determining that she was not disabled and therefore not eligible for supplemental security income ("SSI"), and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Specifically, Johnson contends that the ALJ's decision finding her capable of performing a limited range of light work is erroneous because in three prior disability claims she had been found capable of performing only sedentary work.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This case is before me by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties have fully briefed and argued all issues, and the case is ripe for decision. I have carefully reviewed the administrative record, the legal memoranda, the arguments of counsel, and the applicable law. I conclude that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Johnson's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 10), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 12).


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 a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Johnson 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). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

Johnson 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 engaging in any and all forms of substantial gainful employment given her age, education, and work experience. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2).

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;[1] (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, 460-62 (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). 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 the fifth step to establish that the claimant maintains the residual functional 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).


Social and Vocational History

Johnson was born on December 31, 1958 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 54, 221), and was a "person closely approaching advanced age" on her alleged onset date. R. 221; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). Johnson's date last insured is December 31, 2012. R. 26. She must show that her disability began before that date 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). Johnson obtained a GED in 2002. R. 55, 257. She last worked from 2003 to 2008 as a fuel desk cashier at Trent Truck Stop two to three days a week (sedentary, unskilled work). R. 56, 90. Johnson reported that during the relevant period, she had the capacity to cook, do laundry, vacuum, go outside daily to sit on her porch, shop for food, clothes or medicine once or twice a week, pay bills, read, and go to the doctor. R. 264-71.

Claim History

Johnson previously filed for and was denied disability benefits in 1997, 1999, and 2002. R. 23. In 2001 and 2002, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Charles R. Boyer entered decisions denying Johnson's claims, finding that Johnson had a back disorder that was a severe impairment, but that she retained the functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work. R. 110-117, 390-392.

Johnson again filed for SSI and DIB on January 5, 2010, claiming that her disability began on June 1, 2008, due to diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis in her back. R. 221-223, 256. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 107, 161. On October 14, 2011, ALJ Mark O'Hara held a hearing to consider Johnson's disability claim. R. 47. Johnson was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Johnson and vocational expert Gerald Wells, Ph.D. R. 47-106. During the hearing, Johnson amended her alleged onset date to December 31, 2008. R. 52.

On December 8, 2011, ALJ O'Hara entered his decision denying Johnson's claims. R. 23-40. The ALJ found that Johnson suffered from the severe impairments of a back disorder and obesity. R. 26. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 28. The ALJ further found that Johnson retained the RFC to perform a range of light work, and could occasionally climb stairs or ramps, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. He found that Johnson could not climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; and must avoid extreme cold and workplace ...

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