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Hannah v. Colvin

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

February 11, 2014

CARLUS F. HANNAH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Carlus F. Hannah ("Hannah") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") determining that he was not disabled and therefore not eligible for supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Specifically, Hannah argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider whether Hannah satisfied the requirements of Listing § 12.05(C) for intellectual disability, and that the ALJ improperly weighed opinion evidence.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 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 erred by failing to consider whether Hannah medically equaled the criteria of Listing § 12.05(C). Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16) and GRANTING IN PART Hannah's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 10), and reversing and remanding this case for further administrative consideration consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

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 Hannah failed to demonstrate that he 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).

Hannah bears the burden of proving that he 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 his ability to perform daily activities or certain forms of work. Rather, a claimant must show that his impairments prevent him from engaging in any and all forms of substantial gainful employment given the claimant's 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 his past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether he 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).

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Social and Vocational History

Hannah was born on April 16, 1983 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 111), and was considered a younger person on his alleged onset date. R. 31; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Hannah completed schooling through 11th grade and attempted to get a GED, although there is conflicting evidence as to whether he successfully did so. R. 145, 443, 482. School records indicate that Hannah was enrolled in special education classes due to learning disabilities. R. 393. Hannah previously worked as an assembly worker, grocery bagger/stocker, cashier, dishwasher, janitor, and production worker. R. 141-42. These jobs were largely short term opportunities that Hannah described as "mostly non-tax-paying work." R. 443. Hannah did not have any past relevant work during the alleged disability period. R. 31. Hannah reported that during the relevant period, he had the capacity to perform household chores, prepare meals, feed himself, go grocery shopping, and use public transportation. R. 159-62. Hannah was also capable of personal care, albeit with some difficulty. R. 159.

Claim History

Hannah protectively filed for SSI on April 10, 2008, claiming that his disability began on September 1, 2006. R. 16. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 99-101, 105-107. On January 25, 2011, Hannah failed to attend a scheduled administrative hearing due to transportation issues. R. 468. A second hearing was convened on August 17, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas W. Erwin to consider Hannah's disability claim. R. 16. Hannah again failed to appear before the ALJ, reporting that he needed to take care of his wheel-chair-bound wife. R. 480. The hearing went forward with Hannah represented by his attorney, and included testimony from psychological expert Gary T. Bennett, Ph.D. and vocational expert Annmarie E. Cash, L.P.C. R. 479.

On August 24, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision denying Hannah's claims. R. 32. The ALJ found that Hannah suffered from the severe impairments of right knee pain, obesity, diabetes mellitus, depression, anxiety, and borderline intellectual functioning. R. 18. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 18. The ALJ further found that Hannah retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of medium work, with the following additional limitations:

[T]he claimant cannot drive; should avoid exposure to hazards; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally operate foot controls with the right lower extremity, climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; is limited to simple, routine, repetitive, and unskilled tasks in a low-stress environment (defined as no more than occasional decision making or changes in the work setting); and can ...

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