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Hicks v. Colvin

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

February 20, 2014

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


JAMES C. TURK, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Candace Joy Hicks ("Plaintiff' or "Hicks") brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's ("the Commissioner") final decision denying her claim for child's insurance benefits, ("CIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both Hicks and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 15. The Court heard argument on the motions at a hearing held on September 30, 2013, and they are now ripe for disposition.

The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in this case concluded that Hicks had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of sedentary work with additional restriction including avoidance of even moderate exposure to extreme cold temperatures or cold objects. He also limited her to simple work with limited traveling to unfamiliar places, in order to account for Plaintiff's mental functional limitations. Based on this RFC and other evidence of record, including testimony from a Vocational Expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff remained capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and thus was not disabled.

In her appeal, Hicks contends that she is entitled to a reversal of the Commissioner's decision-or at least a remand-for three primary reasons. First, she argues that the ALJ improperly assessed her credibility and her complaints of pain and self-reported limitations. Second, she contends that the ALJ erred in finding that she can frequently handle, finger, and feel, and that, without this ability, there is no work that exists in significant numbers that she can perform. Third, and closely related to her second argument, she claims that the ALJ failed to consider or discuss the findings and opinions of one of her treating physicians, Dr. Garry Bayliss, and that those opinions undermine the ALJ's RFC determination.

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, ECF No. 15, is GRANTED and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, is DENIED.


When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the Court 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 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, [this Court does] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] 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).

Hicks 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)).[2] 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;[3] (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).


A. Procedural Background

Hicks was born on June 13, 1991 and was 21 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She protectively filed for child's insurance benefits on April 16, 2009, alleging disability since May 1, 2007. R. 143.[4] As the Commissioner acknowledges, she satisfied the basic eligibility requirements for child's insurance benefits on June 13, 2009, her eighteenth birthday. ECF No. 16 at 2 (citing R. 14). She was found not disabled initially and on reconsideration. R. 82-86, 93-94. At a June 9, 2011 hearing before ALJ Joseph T. Sruton, both Plaintiff (who was represented by counsel) and a vocational expert (VE) testified. SeeR. 29-58 (transcript from hearing).

The ALJ issued his decision on August 12, 2011, finding that Hicks was not disabled due to her ability to perform sedentary work, with specific additional limitations discussed below. SeeR. 23; see also generally R. 14-24 (ALJ's decision). 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 Hicks had not yet attained the age of 22 as of the alleged onset date and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date. R. 16-17. At the second step, the ALJ concluded that Hicks had a number of severe impairments, specifically "Sjogren's syndrome;[5] Raynaud's disease;[6] osteoporosis; status post procedure to correct leg/knee deformity; gonadal dysgenesis;[7] depression; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); attention deficit ...

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