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Doss v. Colvin

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

March 3, 2014

ELDGERT S. DOSS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seg. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This court's review is limited to a determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion that plaintiff failed to meet the conditions for entitlement established by and pursuant to the Act. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze , 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

The plaintiff, Eldgert S. Doss, was born on July 19, 1965, and eventually reached the eighth grade in school. Mr. Doss has worked primarily as a construction laborer. At the administrative hearing, a vocational expert testified that plaintiff has also been employed as a tobacco farm worker, painter, groundskeeper, and car painter. (TR 54). While the regularity of plaintiff's past work is subject to some question, it appears that Mr. Doss last engaged in gainful activity in 2007 or 2008. (TR32-33). On June 15, 2009, Mr. Doss filed an application for supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on January 1, 2007 due to pancreatitis, cirrhosis, skeletal injuries, chronic pain, breathing problems/emphysema, and hepatitis. (TR 181). Mr. Doss now maintains that he has remained disabled to the present time.

Plaintiffs application for supplemental security income benefits was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. He then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated March 22, 2012, the Law Judge also determined that Mr. Doss is not disabled. The Law Judge found that plaintiff suffers from a variety of physical impairments, including status post right ankle surgery; degenerative changes of the right ankle; arthritis of the left wrist; left hip femoral impingement; history of cirrhosis and pancreatitis; cervical strain; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and hepatitis C. (TR 14). For purposes of his claim for supplemental income benefits, the Law Judge ruled that Mr. Doss has no past relevant work. (TR 19). The Law Judge determined that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity for a limited range of sedentary work activities. The Law Judge assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, this Administrative Law Judge finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a), with the following exceptions. The claimant can lift or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, can stand and walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant cannot perform crawling, can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and can only perform occasional balancing, kneeling, stooping, and crouching. He can perform frequent, but not continuous, handling and overhead reaching with his left hand and shoulder. He has no additional manipulative limitations with either extremity. He cannot repetitively operate foot controls with his right lower extremity, and cannot operate controls continuously with his left hand. He cannot have concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, excess humidity, pollutants, or irritants. He cannot have exposure to hazardous machinery or unprotected heights, cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and cannot work on vibrating surfaces.

(TR 17). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering plaintiff's age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge found that Mr. Doss retains sufficient functional capacity to perform several specific sedentary work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 19-20). Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that Mr. Doss is not disabled, and that he is not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mr. Doss has now appealed to this court.

While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch , 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff , 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).

After a review of the record in this case, the court is constrained to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Mr. Doss suffered a severe crush injury to his right ankle in an automobile accident in 1989. His ankle was rebuilt with the insertion of a rod, plating, and compressive screws. Since that surgery, plaintiff has experienced progressive pain and loss of function in his right lower extremity. He also experiences pain and residuals of a rotator cuff injury in his left shoulder. More recently, Mr. Doss has developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, apparently associated with cigarette abuse. He has also been treated for degenerative disease process in the lower back. Mr. Doss also has a history of pancreatitis and hepatitis, though there is no indication that these conditions affect plaintiff's capacity for regular work activity. In short, for the most part, plaintiff's claim for disability is founded on a variety of musculoskeletal impairments, and recent onset of breathing problems.

The medical record in this case is somewhat limited, as it appears that Mr. Doss has not received regular attention. Notably, none of plaintiff's treating or examining physicians have suggested that he is disabled for all forms of work. The Social Security Administration arranged for a consultative medical examination by Dr. William H. Humphries. Dr. Humphries examined Mr. Doss on January 31, 2011. In terms of plaintiff's musculoskeletal function, Dr. Humphries produced clinical findings as follows:

NECK: Range of motion is mildly reduced. No JVD. No bruits. No tenderness.
BACK: Range of motion is mildly reduced with mild dorsal kyphosis. There is no scoliosis. No paravertebral muscle spasm. There is tenderness to palpation of the paraspinous muscles in the lumbar region. The straight leg raise is negative to 90 degrees sitting.
JOINT RANGE OF MOTION: Joint range of motion of the upper extremities is full in both shoulders, elbows, slightly reduced in some of the MCP and IP joints with mild synovial thickening of some of these joints. Mildly reduced in left wrist.
Lower extremity joint range of motion is mildly reduced in both hips, within normal limits of the knees and moderately reduced right ankle. There is moderate synovial thickening in this region. There is a vertical 20 cm scar along the mid right tib-fib region that proceeds to the anterior right ankle joint and to the medial malleolar region. There is a punctate 2 cm scar distal to the right ...

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