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Sodhi v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 25, 2014

DERRICK SODHI, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

THERESA CARROLL BUCHANAN, Magistrate Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Derrick Sodhi ("plaintiff") seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("defendant") denying plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment (Dkts. 11 and 13) with briefs in support (Dkts. 12 and 14), which are now ready for resolution. On March 13, 2014, United States District Judge Claude M. Hilton referred this matter, with consent of both parties, to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. 17.) For the following reasons, plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 11) shall be DENIED and defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 13) shall be GRANTED.

I. PROCEEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed his DIB application on January 18, 2010, alleging disability as of April 1, 2009. (Administrative Record[1] ("R.") 11, 53, 136-37, 121-22, 141.) Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on July 29, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on March 4, 2011. (Id. at 70-72, 78-80, 82-84.) Plaintiff requested a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 28, 2011. (Id. at 85.) On May 18, 2011, plaintiff applied for SSI. (Id. at 11.)

ALJ Larry K. Banks held a hearing on December 5, 2011, during which he received testimony from plaintiff, represented by counsel, and Dina P. Leviton, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 26-52.) On April 10, 2012, the ALJ issued his decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act from April 1, 2009, through the date of his decision. (Id. at 11-21.) The Appeals Council for the Office of Disability and Adjudication ("Appeals Council") denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on February 26, 2013. (Id. at 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, plaintiff filed a Complaint for judicial review on April 30, 2013. (Dkt. 1.) Defendant answered on September 13, 2013, (Dkt. 5), and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkts. 11 and 13.) The matter is now ripe for adjudication.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the Social Security Act, the Court's review of the Acting Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the Acting Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Hays , 907 F.2d at 1456. While the standard is high, where the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence on the record, or where the ALJ has made an error of law, the district court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen , 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but it may not "undertake to reweigh the conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary." Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d at 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). The correct law to be applied includes the Act, its implementing regulations, and controlling case law. Coffman , 829 F.2d at 517-18. Moreover, the Acting Commissioner is charged with evaluating the medical evidence and assessing symptoms, signs, and medical findings to determine the functional capacity of the claimant. Hays , 907 F.2d at 1456-57. With this standard in mind, the Court next evaluates the ALJ's findings and decision.

III. ALJ'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

The ALJ is required to employ a five-step sequential evaluation in every Social Security disability claim analysis to determine the claimant's eligibility. The Court examines this five-step process on appeal to determine whether the correct legal standards were applied, and whether the resulting decision of the Acting Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. In accordance with the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

First, plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since April 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (R. 13.) Second, plaintiff has the following severe impairments: history of right clubfoot, right lower extremity cellulitis, obesity, and sciatica with chronic low back pain. (Id.) Third, the ALJ found that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 16.) Fourth, plaintiff has the residual function capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except plaintiff requires a "sit/stand option; stand 45-60 minutes before alternating to sitting for 45-60 minutes." (Id. at 16.) The ALJ also found that plaintiff cannot climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, can "perform stooping on an occasional basis, " and is limited to performing unskilled tasks "[d]ue to pain and side effects of medication." (Id.) Fifth, while plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. (Id. at 19-20.) Therefore, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 1, 2009, through April 10, 2012, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 21.)

IV. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was 35 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (R. 29, 121-22.) Plaintiff has a high school education, completed two years of classes at Computer Learning Center, and worked in the past as a cab driver, mortgage broker, Home Depot employee, and order puller for a software company. (Id. at 31-32, 48-49, 143, 149-56.) When he applied for benefits in 2010, plaintiff alleged disability since April 1, 2009, due to osteoarthritis, cellulitis, and septic strep of the blood.[2] (Id. at 55, 121, 141.)

On December 5, 2011, plaintiff testified to having a right club foot, "bad pain" in his right foot, sleep apnea, knee problems, cellulitis, panic attacks, and leg swelling. (Id. at 31-34, 44-46.) At the time of the hearing, he was five feet ten inches tall and weighed slightly less than 300 pounds. (Id. at 41-42.) Plaintiff testified that he cannot stand or walk for a lengthy period and needs to elevate his legs throughout the day. (Id. at 35-37.) However, he also stated that he is able to "walk maybe half a mile, " help his wife care for her grandmother, coach a youth basketball team, and alternate from sitting to standing while coaching. (Id. at 37, 42-44.)

The ALJ received testimony from Dina Levington, a VE, at the hearing on December 5, 2011. (Id. at 48-52.) The VE stated that an individual with plaintiff's impairments and limitations can perform unskilled, sedentary work in the national economy. (Id. at 49-50.) The number of identified sedentary jobs would not change if the hypothetical person needed to elevate his foot at stool level during the workday. (Id. at 50.)

In reaching his decision, the ALJ analyzed medical reports from 2006 through 2011, including documents regarding foot, leg, and back pain, pneumonia, and a 2006 bypass surgery for plaintiff's obesity. (Id. at 13-15.) The ALJ found that while plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with the his RFC assessment. (Id. at 17.) Specifically, the ALJ noted that plaintiff often engaged in activities inconsistent with his allegations of disability, such as performing manual labor, helping friends move, and coaching a youth basketball team. (Id. at 18.) Furthermore, the record contained "little evidence to support [plaintiff's] assertion that he [needed] to elevate his right leg above desk level, " and there was conflicting evidence about the swelling in plaintiff's lower extremity. (Id. at 17-18.)

Additionally, the ALJ recognized evidence to suggest that plaintiff was engaging in drug seeking behavior. For example, in 2010, Dr. Gallagher indicated that plaintiff exhibited this behavior by "paging [him] at all hours" and not taking his prescribed narcotics in the proper amounts. (Id. at 18, 446-56.) When Dr. Gallagher informed plaintiff that he would not provide him with more narcotics, plaintiff stopped seeing him and began seeing Dr. Meyers instead. (Id.) On February 11, 2010, Dr. ...


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