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Mills v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Danville Division

May 5, 2014

MOLLY A. MILLS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Molly A. Mills (“Mills”) brought this action for review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) decision denying her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 – 1383(f). On appeal, Mills argues that the Commissioner improperly assessed her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by failing to incorporate her cognitive limitations and thus incorrectly determined that she could perform other work. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), and this case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After carefully reviewing the record and the briefs of the parties, I find that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is supported by substantial evidence, and I recommend that the Commissioner’s decision be affirmed.

I. Procedural History

Mills was born on June 14, 1988 (Administrative Record, hereinafter “R.” 38, 157), and at the time of the ALJ’s decision was considered a “younger person” under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.923(c). Mills is a college graduate (R. 37) and has no prior work history (R. 41, 168-73). On August 18, 2010, Mills filed an application for SSI. (R. 157-62.) She alleged a disability onset date of her birth, June 14, 1988, for learning disability, arthritis, diabetes, and foot deformity. (R. 157, 175.)

The Commissioner rejected Mills’s application both initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 18.) On May 15, 2012, the ALJ held an administrative hearing at which Mills was represented by counsel. (R. 32-80.) In an opinion dated June 8, 2012, the ALJ found that Mills had bilateral lower extremities impairments, diabetic neuropathy, chronic dislocation of the right patella, and learning disorder, which qualify as severe impairments pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). (R. 20.) None of these impairments met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 20-21.) The ALJ found that Mills had the RFC to perform sedentary work[1] requiring standing or walking for at least two hours and sitting for six hours of an eight hour workday; occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, and crouching; and no climbing, kneeling, or crawling. (R. 23.) She must avoid exposure to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights and is limited to work involving simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a low stress environment and occasional decision-making and changes in the work setting. (Id.) The ALJ found that Mills had no past relevant work. (R. 27.) Based on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs, including document preparer and direct mail clerk, existed in the national economy. (R. 28.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mills was not disabled under the Act. (Id.) The Appeals Council denied Mills’s request for review (R. 1-3), and this appeal followed.

II. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner’s final determination that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); see also Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court’s role, however, is limited—it may not “reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, the Court asks only whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011).

“Substantial evidence” means “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 mere scintilla” of evidence, ” id., but not necessarily “a large or considerable amount of evidence, ” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account the entire record, and not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984); see also Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487–89 (1951). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ’s factual findings if “‘conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled.’” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

A person is “disabled” if he or she is unable 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (governing adult claims for SSI). Social Security ALJs follow a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the applicant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the Act’s regulations; (4) can return to his or her past relevant work based on his or her residual functional capacity; and if not (5) whether he or she can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460–462 (1983). The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. At step five, the burden shifts to the agency to prove that the applicant is not disabled. See id.

III. Discussion

Mills argues that the ALJ’s assessment of her RFC did not accurately incorporate her cognitive limitations. (Pl. Br. 2.) It follows, according to Mills, that the hypothetical posed to the VE was similarly deficient and the ALJ’s finding that Mills could perform other work was in error. Mills does not dispute the ALJ’s findings regarding her exertional limitations. Accordingly, the discussion will primarily address evidence and argument concerning Mills’s nonexertional symptoms. A. Facts When Mills applied for disability in August 2010 she was a student at Averett College (“Averett”). She had transferred to Averett after completed three years of community college, where she earned a 3.2 Grade Point Average (“GPA”). (R. 39.) During her first year as a student at Averett, which was actually her junior year of college, Mills received Bs in Sociology and Psychology, a C in an unspecified class, a D in English, and an F in Political Science. (R. 244.)

Staff in the educational support department at Averett believed Mills may have a learning disability and referred her to Franklin E. Russell (“Russell”), Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. (R. 243-44.)

Russell interviewed Mills twice in May 2010 and prepared a written psychological and educational assessment. (R. 243-48.) Mills told Russell that she reads, watches television, talks to friends on the phone, assists with a local Girl Scout troop, and enjoys going outside. (R. 245.) Based on his interviews, Russell found “[n]othing out of the ordinary” regarding Mills’s memory and that her recent memory ability was good. (R. 246.) Her judgment was good, and her insight was fair. (Id.)

Russell administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Fourth Edition (“WAIS-IV”). The results showed a verbal comprehensive index of 91, perceptual reasoning index of 67, working memory index of 83, processing speed index of 79, and a full scale IQ of 75. (R. 246.) Mills’s IQ score placed her in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. (Id.) Russell noted the Mills exhibited strength in “language skills, especially those that pertain to knowledge that is obt[a]ined by memorization and provide by structured education programs.” (R. 246-47.) She had a lesser ability to perform tasks that required verbal abstract reasoning, and she showed significant weakness in non-verbal abstract reasoning and spatial abilities. (R. 247.) Her visual ...

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