United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
CONNIE L. BOWMAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
JAMES C. TURK, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Connie L. Bowman ("Plaintiff' or "Bowman") brought this action for review of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin's ("the Commissioner") final decision denying her claim for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Titles XVI and II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. On appeal, Bowman claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to properly evaluate all of her impairments, particularly her non-exertional impairments, and that his determination that Bowman could perform substantial gainful activity is not supported by substantial evidence.
This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Both Bowman and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 12, 17. The Court heard argument on the motions, see ECF No. 20, and they are now ripe for disposition.
In her motion for summary judgment, Bowman contends that the Commissioner erred in concluding she was not disabled. She offers four primary arguments in support of this contention. First, she claims that the ALJ erred because he "fail[ed] to probe the significance of Bowman's non-exertional impairments." ECF No. 13 at 8. In particular, she posits that the medical records show that she suffers from "severe emotional problems that would preclude her from dealing with work stresses, dealing with co-workers, and dealing with the public." Id . Second, Bowman argues that the ALJ committed error in "substituting [his] own medical opinion for the opinions of highly qualified mental health professionals." Id . Third, she submits that the ALJ "failed to analyze the cumulative effect of all of [her] medical problems." ECF No. 13 at 9. Fourth and finally, she faults the AU for his conclusion that her failure to attend numerous medical appointments indicated that her "symptoms have not been as limiting as she has alleged." ECF No. 13 at 9 (quoting R. 34). Bowman contends that the ALJ's conclusion erroneously failed to "take into account the symptoms of social phobia and panic disorder with agoraphobia, " from which Bowman suffers. ECF No. 13 at 9.
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. 17, is GRANTED and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 12, 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, "[iln 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).
Bowman 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
Bowman was born in 1981, R. 43,  and was only twenty-seven years old on her alleged disability onset date of February 22, 2009. R. 215. At all relevant times, therefore, she was a "younger person" under the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416-963(c). She has a high school education and previously worked as a cashier (a light, unskilled job), a deli worker (a light, unskilled job), a grinding machine operator (a heavy, skilled job), and a spinner in a textile factory (a medium, semi-skilled job). R. 50-52, 67-68.
She protectively applied for DIB and SSI on April 14, 2009, alleging disability since February 22, 2009 as a result of "chronic pain in multiple areas, seizures, [and] social anxiety." R. 215-28, 240. Her claim was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 151-56. At a November 28, 2011 hearing before ALJ Benjamin McMillion, both Plaintiff (who was represented by counsel) and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified. See R. 45-79 (transcript from hearing). The ALJ issued his decision on December 13, 2011, finding that Bowman was not disabled due to her ...