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Chinault v. Colvin

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

April 21, 2014

BRIAN EARNEST CHINAULT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. TURK, District Judge.

Plaintiff Brian Earnest Chinault ("Chinault") brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn Colvin's ("the Commissioner") final decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both Chinault and the Commissioner filed motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 15, 19. Oral argument was heard on March 12, 2014, and the motions are now ripe for disposition.

This appeal raises a straightforward issue, to wit, whether the hypothetical question the Administrative Law Judge posed to the Vocational Expert ("VE") included one of the most limiting portions of the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") found by the ALJ and, if not, whether there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision. Because the Court concludes that the question posed to the VE was an improper hypothetical question that did not adequately set forth the RFC as found by the ALJ, the Court remands this case for further proceedings.

Accordingly, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. The Agency's decision is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED to the Agency for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether they were reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hancock v. Astrue , 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). The Commissioner's finding of any fact is conclusive provided it is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Perales , 402 U.S. at 401; Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472. Substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472 (citation omitted). If the Commissioner's determinations are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, but instead must defer to those determinations. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

Chinault was born on June 22, 1967 and was 42 years old on the alleged onset disability date. R. 27. Thus, he is deemed a younger individual under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. Chinault began working at age 15, R. 78-79, and worked until he suffered a nervous breakdown while working as a pump station mechanic in March 2010. R. 20. Chinault filed an application for DIB under Title II on May 10, 2010, which was denied on both initial consideration and reconsideration. R. 15. Thereafter, Chinault requested and received a hearing, which was held on January 25, 2012 before ALJ Jennifer Horne. R. 37-93. In an opinion dated February 24, 2012, the ALJ denied Chinault's request for benefits.

There is no dispute that Chinault has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 2010 and that he meets the insured requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014. R. 17. The ALJ also found that Chinault suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spines, irritable colon, migraines, anxiety, and depression. R. 17. The ALJ further found that Chinault had the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that he needs to have the opportunity to sit or stand at will; he can only occasionally use ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; he can never climb ladders; he should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes and hazards; he can perform simple, routine, repetitive, and unskilled work; he can tolerate occasional contact with the public; and he may be absent from work one day a month due to migraines.

R. 20.

Based on this RFC, and relying on testimony from the VE at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Chinault could not return to any of his past work, but that there were jobs Chinault could perform that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 28. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Chinault was not disabled. The Commissioner denied review of the ALJ's decision, R. 1-6, and Chinault timely appealed to this Court.

Chinault's sole argument on appeal concerns the validity of the VE's testimony, so the Court will restate that testimony at length here. The exchange between the VE and the ALJ was as follows:

ALJ: All right, Mr. Williams, I'm going to ask you some hypothetical questions. I'm going to ask you to assume an individual the claimant's age, education and past work, who's able to lift 10 pounds frequently, 20 pounds occasionally. Sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. ...

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