United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone GAP Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PAMELA MEADE SARGENT, Magistrate Judge.
I. Background and Standard of Review
Plaintiff, Nathan Paul Jones, filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ("Commissioner"), determining that he was not eligible for disability insurance benefits, ("DIB"), under the Social Security Act, as amended, ("Act"), 42 U.S.C.A. § 423 (West 2011). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). As directed by the order of referral, the undersigned now submits the following report and recommended disposition.
The court's review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen , 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence.'"" Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws , 368 F.2d at 642).
The record shows that Jones protectively filed his application for DIB on May 9, 2007, alleging disability as of May 4, 2007, due to degenerative disc disease, nerve damage, arthritic spurs on the spine, persistent back and right leg pain and pain in his arms and hands. (Record, ("R."), at 206, 210, 234, 259.) The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 52-54, 57, 59-61.) Jones then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, ("ALJ"). (R. at 64.) The hearing was held on October 6, 2009, at which, neither Jones nor his attorney was present. (R. at 28-33.) A second hearing was scheduled to be held on August 1, 2011. (R. at 134-48.) By letter dated July 27, 2011, Jones's attorney indicated that neither he nor Jones would appear at the hearing. (R. at 173-74.) The ALJ, therefore, issued a decision without proceeding with the hearing pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.948(b). (R. at 19.)
By decision dated August 26, 2011,  the ALJ denied Jones's claim. (R. at 19-27.) The ALJ found that Jones met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2012. (R. at 21.) He found that Jones had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 4, 2007, the alleged onset date of disability. (R. at 22.) The ALJ determined that the medical evidence established that Jones suffered from severe impairments, including a back disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome, but he found that Jones did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed at or medically equal to one listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 22.) The ALJ found that Jones had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work except for that which required climbing, crawling or standing/walking for more than 15 minutes in an hour up to a total of two hours in an eight-hour period. (R. at 22.) Thus, the ALJ found that Jones was unable to perform his past relevant work. (R. at 26.) Based on Jones's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Jones could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including jobs as an office addresser, a textile cutter and a cuff folder. (R. at 26-27.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Jones was not under a disability as defined under the Act and was not eligible for benefits. (R. at 27.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (2013).
After the ALJ issued his decision, Jones pursued his administrative appeals, (R. at 15), but the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (R. at 1-4, 6-9.) Jones then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (2013). The case is before this court on Jones's motion for summary judgment filed July 26, 2013, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed September 27, 2013.
Jones was born in 1962, (R. at 206), which, at the time of the ALJ's decision, classified him as a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). He has a high school education and past relevant work as a clothes turner, a die caster, a janitor and a log hewer. (R. at 211, 217.)
James B. Williams, a vocational expert, was present and testified at Jones's October 6, 2009, hearing. (R. at 30-33.) He classified Jones's past relevant work as a log hewer, a janitor and a die caster as unskilled and medium,  and his work as a garment turner as unskilled and light. (R. at 30-31.) Williams was asked to consider a hypothetical individual of Jones's age, education and work history, who could occasionally lift items weighing 10 pounds and frequently lift items weighing five pounds, who could stand for two hours in an eight-hour workday, who could sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, who should not crawl or climb ropes, scaffolds or ladders, who could occasionally bend, stoop and kneel and frequently reach, who should not work around heat, cold, fumes or dust, who would require breaks of 10 to 15 minutes at approximately two-hour intervals, who would miss 10 to 12 days of work annually and whose work should be routine and repetitive in nature. (R. at 31-32.) Williams testified that such an individual could perform sedentary work that existed in significant numbers, such as an office addresser, a textile cutter and a cuff folder. (R. at 32-33.)
In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Dr. Jill K. Couch, D.O.; Lee Regional Medical Center; Dr. Marissa Vito Cruz, M.D.; Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center; Dr. Ken W. Smith, M.D., a neurosurgeon; Dr. Anthony E. Holt, D.O., a neurologist; Lonesome Pine Hospital; Dr. Robert McGuffin, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. Timothy S. Smyth, M.D.; Dr. Frank M. Johnson, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. Joseph F. Smiddy, M.D.; and Michael Dorval, C.R.C., a licensed rehabilitation counselor.
On August 19, 2005, Dr. Marissa Vito Cruz, M.D., saw Jones for complaints of wrist pain. (R. at 333.) Dr. Cruz noted a hard nodule on the palm of Jones's right wrist. (R. at 333.) She diagnosed ganglion cyst of the right wrist and chronic low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease. (R. at 333.) On October 20, 2005, Jones complained of back pain. (R. at 330.) X-rays of Jones's lumbar spine showed grade I spondylolisthesis at the L3-L5 levels. (R. at 330, 332.) Dr. Cruz diagnosed degenerative disc disease of the spine with chronic low back pain and mild spondylolisthesis. (R. at 330.) On December 19, 2005, Jones reported that his pain was "somewhat better" since his medication had been increased. (R. at 328.) Dr. Cruz diagnosed degenerative disc disease of the spine with chronic low back pain and a bulging disc, mild spondylosis and ganglion cyst on the wrist. (R. at 328.) On January 25, 2006, Jones complained of back pain. (R. at 324.) X-rays of Jones's right wrist were normal. (R. at 326.) He was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease of the spine with chronic low back pain, lumbar radiculopathy, mild spondylosis and ganglion cyst on the wrist. (R. at 324.) On February 7, 2006, an MRI of Jones's lumbar spine showed a mild degree of degenerative change with signal alteration in the lower three disc spaces. (R. at 288.) No herniated disc or other abnormalities were noted. (R. at 288.)
On June 21, 2006, Jones complained of left index finger pain and back problems. (R. at 315.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones had difficulty standing from a sitting position. (R. at 315.) She also noted that Jones had a cyst on his left index finger near the junction of the metacarpophalangeal, ("MCP"), joint. (R. at 315.) Dr. Cruz diagnosed chronic low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease, ganglion cyst in the left MCP joint of the second digit, indigestion/heartburn and continued tobacco dependence. (R. at 315.) On July 21, 2006, Jones reported that his back pain seemed to be a "little bit better." (R. at 313.) An MRI showed some degenerative changes, but no herniated disc. (R. at 313.) He continued to complain of pain radiating down his right leg. (R. at 313.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones had difficulty standing from a sitting position. (R. at 313.) Dr. Cruz diagnosed degenerative disc disease of the spine, chronic low back pain, mild spondylosis, ganglion cyst of the right wrist and chronic indigestion and heartburn. (R. at 313.) On August 21, 2006, Jones reported that the ganglion cyst on his wrist had improved dramatically, but he had a lesion in the webs of his fingers that was steadily getting bigger. (R. at 312.) He reported that his pain was "somewhat well controlled" with medication. (R. at 312.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones's hand showed a cystic lesion in the anterior digital web space between the second and third digit of the right hand, as well as knots on his fingers underneath the digits. (R. at 312.) She diagnosed chronic back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease, continued tobacco dependence, ganglion cyst of the right wrist, improved, and cystic lesion in the anterior digital web space. (R. at 312.) On October 20, 2006, Jones was seen for follow-up regarding his chronic pain. (R. at 307-08.) The ganglion cyst in his wrist had resolved. (R. at 307.) He reported that he had pain in his right shoulder when he attempted to raise his arms above his head. (R. at 307.) He stated that his back pain was somewhat better. (R. at 307.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones had positive impingement sign of the right shoulder. (R. at 307.) X-rays of Jones's right shoulder were normal. (R. at 309.) She diagnosed chronic back pain, secondary to degenerative disc disease, and right shoulder bursitis. (R. at 307.) On December 20, 2006, Jones reported that his wrist and hands were doing much better since his Lortab had been increased. (R. at 304.) He also reported that since he had been wearing his gloves, the pain in his extremities had not been much of a problem. (R. at 304.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones had a cystic lesion on his left index finger. (R. at 304.) She diagnosed chronic back pain, secondary to degenerative disc disease, and ganglion cyst on the left index finger. (R. at 304.)
On February 19, 2007, Jones complained of increased back pain since he began working for a logging company. (R. at 301.) Dr. Cruz diagnosed chronic back pain, secondary to degenerative disc disease, and ganglion cysts on the hands. (R. at 301.) On April 20, 2007, Jones complained of his wrists and forearms "falling asleep." (R. at 298-99.) Dr. Cruz reported that, at times, she had seen Jones's pain gradually go from "bad to worse." (R. at 298.) She noted that Jones had multiple ganglion cysts in his hands, secondary to trauma from his then-current job. (R. at 298.) She diagnosed bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome secondary to overuse type injury, chronic back pain, secondary to degenerative disc disease, and multiple ganglion cysts in his hands and wrists. (R. at 298.) On May 21, 2007, x-rays of Jones's right ankle were normal. (R. at 295.) On May 30, 2007, Jones underwent a nerve conduction study, which showed a normal electromyogram of Jones's muscles and findings suggestive of early sensorimotor peripheral neuropathy with segmental demyelinating features. (R. at 293-94.) On June 6, 2007, Jones complained of increased lower back pain. (R. at 289, 292.) Dr. Cruz noted that Jones had difficulty standing from a sitting position. (R. at 289.) She diagnosed acute exacerbation of chronic low back pain, secondary to severe degenerative disc disease. (R. at 289.) She excused Jones from work for at least two weeks. (R. at 292.)
On June 27, 2007, Jones saw Dr. Jill K. Couch, D.O. (R. at 400-02.) Dr. Couch diagnosed chronic lumbar radiculopathy, hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease, ("GERD"). (R. at 401-02.) On July 26, 2007, Jones complained of chronic low back pain with radiation down his right leg with numbness and tingling. (R. at 396.) Straight leg raising tests were positive on the right. (R. at 397.) He was diagnosed with lumbar radiculopathy, right lower extremity neuropathy, hypertension and GERD. (R. at 397.)
Jones saw Dr. Couch on five occasions in 2008. (R. at 420-28.) On these occasions, Dr. Couch reported that Jones was in no acute distress and that he looked well. (R. at 420, 422, 424, 426-27.) He had no swelling or effusion in his joints. (R. at 420, 422, 424, 426-27.) He had tenderness at the L4-L5 level. (R. at 422, 424, 426-27.) Straight leg raising tests were negative and he had normal deep tendon reflexes and muscle strength. (R. at 422, 424, 426-27.) On December 6, 2008, a chest x-ray ...