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Clausen v. Colvin

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

February 7, 2014

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


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Adrienne Vanessa Clausen ("Clausen") 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, Clausen alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in not finding a listing level impairment, improperly giving the opinion of her treating physician less than controlling weight, and discrediting her subjective complaints of pain.[2] This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), and 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 substantial evidence supports the ALJs finding that Clausen did not meet the criteria of a listed impairment, and the ALJs evaluation of the opinion evidence of Clausens treating physician and Clausens subjective complaints. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Clausens Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16), and GRANTING the Commissioners Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 21.


Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code authorizes judicial review of the Commissioners 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 Commissioners conclusion that Clausen 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).

Clausen 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 any and all forms of substantial gainful employment given the claimants 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; (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 claimants 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

Clausen was born on March 17, 1970 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 50, 151, 157), and was classified as a younger person on her alleged onset date. R. 39, 70; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). Clausens last insured date is December 31, 2013. R. 30. Clausen 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). Clausen attended one year of college and received her GED. R. 51. Clausen previously worked as a certified nursing assistant ("CNA"), cook, construction worker, restaurant housekeeper, and most recently as package handler. R. 70, 71, 227, 267, 321, 346. Clausen reported that during the relevant period, she had the capacity to use a computer, read, handle her personal care with some assistance, prepare meals, socialize with friends and family, go outdoors five days of the week, shop for food, watch television, count change, and use a checkbook. R. 68, 218-222, 279-83.

Claim History

Clausen protectively filed for SSI and DIB on September 11, 2009, claiming that her disability began on June 1, 2008. R. 28. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 10-11, 28, 79-82. On July 14, 2011, ALJ Brian P. Kilbane held a hearing to consider Clausens disability claim. R. 25, 49-77. Clausen was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Clausen, a friend, and vocational expert Gerald K. Wells, Ph.D. R. 28. At the evidentiary hearing, Clausen moved to amend the alleged disability onset date to June 1, 2009. R. 66.

On July 29, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision denying Clausens claims. R. 41. The ALJ found that Clausen suffered from the severe impairments of disorders of the spine, attention deficit disorder ("ADD"), and anxiety disorder. R. 31. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 33. The ALJ further found that Clausen retained the RFC to perform light work, with the following limitations: (1) no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) limitations in pushing/pulling and overheard reaching with her upper extremities; and, (3) restriction to simple unskilled work that does not require good ability to maintain attention for extended periods of time. R. 36. The ALJ also found that Clausen was "only mildly limited in interacting with others, dealing with routine stressors, maintaining regular attendance, and completing a normal workday/workweek; and, she would not require additional supervision to perform even detailed tasks." R. 36. The ALJ determined that Clausen could not return to her past relevant work as a housekeeper, cook, electricians assistant, package handler, or construction laborer (R. 39), but that Clausen could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: namely, office helper, file clerk, and telephone information clerk. R. 40. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Clausen was not disabled. R. 40-41. On January 3, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Clausens request for review (R. 10-12), and this appeal followed.


Clausen seeks disability starting in June of 2009 due to spine disorders that she alleges cause pain and restrict her range of motion. The ALJ found that although her spine disorders were severe, the objective medical evidence indicated she could still perform light work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 31, 33-40. Clausen argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that she did not suffer from a musculoskeletal listing level impairment, by not giving controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician Dr. Kennedy and the impairments he claims affect her, and by improperly discrediting her subjective complaints of pain.


Clausen contends that she is entitled to benefits because she suffers from a herniated or bulging disc in her neck which qualifies as a "disorder of the spine" under the musculoskeletal listed impairment 1.04. A "listed impairment" is one considered by the Social Security Administration "to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). "When satisfied, the listings of impairments automatically result in a finding of disability. The listings are designed to reflect impairments that, for the most part, 2017are permanent or expected to result in death." Casillas v. Astrue, 3:09-CV-00076, 2011 WL 450426, at *4 (W.D. Va. Feb. 3, ...

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