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Chestnut v. Colvin

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

May 5, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Carla Sue Chestnut (“Chestnut”) asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401–434, 1381–1383f. Chestnut primarily argues that she does not have the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work involving simple instructions and simple, routine tasks. Alternatively, Chestnut argues that she cannot work as an addresser or call-out operator because those jobs involve more than “simple” instructions. Chestnut asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner’s decision and award her benefits without remanding her case for further consideration.

This Court has authority to decide Chestnut’s case under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), and her case is before me by referral under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (See ECF No. 19.) After carefully reviewing the administrative record, the parties’ briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision that Chestnut can perform the representative occupation of addresser. Therefore, I RECOMMEND that this Court DENY Chestnut’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14), GRANT the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17), and DISMISS this case from the Court’s active docket.

I. Procedural History

Chestnut protectively filed this DIB/SSI application on June 30, 2009. (R. 212.) At the time, she was a 37-year-old college graduate with a certificate in business management. (See R. 53.) Chestnut claimed that “Grand mal epileptic seizures, post-dramatic [sic] stress disorder/anxiety attacks[, ] diabetes, ” and a back injury kept her from working since November 11, 2008. (R. 226.) She did not allege, however, that those impairments forced her to stop working on that date. Instead, Chestnut reported that she had been unable to find gainful employment since being laid off for “other reasons.” (Id.)

A state agency twice denied Chestnut’s application in 2010. (See R. 118, 122, 131, 133.) On June 22, 2011, Chestnut appeared at an administrative hearing with counsel and Holly Mackey, a close friend who testified on Chestnut’s behalf. (R. 49, 51.) A Vocational Expert (“VE”) also testified at the hearing as to the type of jobs that Chestnut might perform given her age, education, work history, and physical and mental limitations. (See R. 84–100.) In a written opinion dated July 22, 2011, the ALJ found that Chestnut was not disabled. (R. 24.) He denied Chestnut’s application at Step Five. (See generally R. 24–38.)

At Step One, the ALJ found that Chestnut had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 11, 2008. (R. 24.) At Step Two, he found that Chestnut suffered from severe insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, post-traumatic stress disorder, affective disorder, and obesity. (R. 25.) The ALJ also found that Chestnut’s back pain and seizure disorder were “non- severe” impairments because they did not significantly interfere with her ability to perform basic work activities. (See id.)

At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Chestnut did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 27.) His analysis at this step focused exclusively on Chestnut’s mental impairments.[2] (See R. 27–29.) The ALJ concluded that Chestnut’s affective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder did not meet or medically equal the criteria in Listings 12.04 or 12.06. (See R. 28–29.)

Before reaching Step Four, the ALJ determined that Chestnut had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and to perform unskilled sedentary work involving simple, routine tasks. (R. 29.) He also limited Chestnut to jobs where she could avoid hazards such as machinery and heights. (Id.) In making this determination, the ALJ considered the extent to which Chestnut’s impairments and symptoms could “reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence” in her record. (Id.) He also considered statements from Chestnut and Mackey, and medical opinions from treating sources, consultative sources, and state-agency sources. (See generally R. 29–36.)

At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Chestnut could not perform her past relevant work as a telephone solicitor, customer-service representative, directory-assistance operator, food-service worker/hospital dietary aide, or receptionist. (R. 36.) He agreed with the VE’s testimony that Chestnut’s impairments kept her from performing these semi-skilled and skilled jobs. (See R. 36, 38, 85–86.)

At Step Five, the ALJ determined that Chestnut could still perform certain “sedentary and unskilled/SVP 2 occupations, ”[4] including addresser and call-out operator. (R. 37.) The VE mentioned those occupations in response to the ALJ’s question about jobs a person matching Chestnut’s age, education, and work experience might transition to if she: (1) could perform sedentary work involving simple, routine tasks; (2) could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; (3) should have only occasional interaction with others; and (4) should avoid exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. (See R. 88.) The ALJ found the VE’s testimony consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), and that both jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 38.) Thus, he found Chestnut was “not disabled” under the Act and agency regulations. (Id.) The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision on January 24, 2013 (R. 1), 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. §§ 405(g), 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 the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s factual findings. 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a) (governing claims for DIB), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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

Chestnut primarily objects to the ALJ’s conclusion that she can perform sedentary work involving simple instructions and simple, routine tasks. (Pl. Br. 1.) She argues that the ALJ should have given “greater weight” to Dr. Henry Comiter’s opinion of her seizure disorder’s limiting effects, and that the ALJ’s reasons for giving that opinion “little weight” were “insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence.” (Pl. Br. 24.) Chestnut also argues that the ALJ “improperly evaluated” her credibility. (Pl. Br. 27.) Here Chestnut claims that her medical records corroborate her testimony about her impairments and inability to work. (Id.)

Alternatively, Chestnut objects to the ALJ’s conclusion that a person who can carry out only “simple instructions” could still work as an addresser or call-out operator. (See Pl. Br. 1–2.) She claims that the ALJ should not have relied on the VE’s testimony to that effect because it conflicted with the ALJ’s hypothetical and with the Reasoning Development Levels assigned to those jobs in the DOT. (See Pl. Br. 23.) Assuming there was a conflict, Chestnut also argues that the ALJ committed legal error when he did not reconcile the VE’s testimony with the DOT. (Pl. Br. 24.)

A. Chestnut’s Treating Physician

Agency regulations instruct ALJs to weigh each medical opinion[5] in the applicant’s record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(b), 416.927(b). Medical opinions from treating physicians receive either “controlling weight” or less than controlling weight. Id. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). A treating physician’s opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the applicant’s] case record.” Id.; see also Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996) (“[I]f a physician’s opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight.”).

The ALJ must “give good reasons” for discounting a treating physician’s medical opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). He also must consider certain factors in determining what weight to give that opinion, such as the length and nature of the doctor-patient relationship, the weight of the evidence supporting the opinion, the physician’s medical specialty, and the opinion’s consistency with other evidence in the record. See id.; Clausen v. Astrue, No. 5:13-cv-23, 2014 WL 901208, at *9 (W.D. Va. Mar. 7, 2014). That obligation is satisfied when the ALJ’s decision “indicates” that he considered the required factors. Burch v. Apfel, 9 Fed. App’x ...

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