United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
STEPHANIE N. McMILLIAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,  Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
JAMES C. TURK, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Stephanie N. McMillian ("Plaintiff" or "McMillian") brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's ("the Commissioner") final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") 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 McMillian and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 11, 13. The Court heard argument on the motions, see ECF No. 18, and they are now ripe for disposition.
This case stems from Plaintiffs second application for DIB, and, as happened with her first claim for benefits, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALP) below concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. The period of alleged disability that the ALJ in this case was evaluating began July 22, 2008 and ended December 31, 2010. Although Plaintiff alleged several disabling conditions, the primary limiting conditions at issue in this appeal arise from shoulder, back, and neck injuries she sustained in two separate car accidents, in September 2005 and July 2009, respectively.
In reaching his decision that McMillian was not disabled, the ALJ adopted in large part the functional limitations recommended by one of McMillian's treating physicians, Dr. Ritchie, in September 2011. The ALJ did not include the restriction set forth by Dr. Ritchie, however, that Plaintiff could not engage in any reaching, finding instead that she should be limited to no overhead reaching. Likewise, the All discounted Dr. Ritchie's opinion that Plaintiff would miss work at least two days per month due to severe pain. The ALJ instead concluded that McMillian had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of sedentary work with additional restrictions including no "pushing and pulling of arm controls" and no "reaching overhead." R. 22. Based on this RFC and other evidence of record, including testimony from a vocational expert ("VE"), the All determined that Plaintiff remained capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the regional and national economies and thus was not disabled. R. 28; see generally R. 17-30 (decision of All).
In her motion for summary judgment, McMillian contends that the Commissioner erred in concluding she was not disabled. Her primary argument is that the ALJ erred by discarding portions of Dr. Ritchie's opinion and cherry-picking only parts of it to rely upon. She also posits that "the ALJ failed to analyze the cumulative effect of all of her medical problems." Id. at 8. McMillian also challenges the ALJ's decision by pointing to the written opinion provided by her independent VE, Mr. Hankins, who opined that Dr. Ritchie's recommended physical functional limitations would render her unable to perform the requirements of any positions that exist in significant numbers in the regional or national economy. ECF No. 12 at 7-8.
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. 13, is GRANTED and Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 11, is DENIED.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
McMillian 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)). 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).
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. 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 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).
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
A. Procedural Background
McMillian was born on August 31, 1970, R. 43, and was forty-one years old at the time of the ALJ's decision on October 14, 2011. At all relevant times, therefore, she was a "younger person" under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). She has a high school education and ...