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Lawson v. Colvin

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

May 8, 2014

LINDA LAWSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Page 607

For Linda Lawson, Plaintiff: Gary Clay Hancock, LEAD ATTORNEY, GILMER, SADLER, INGRAM, SUTHERLAND & HUTTON, PULASKI, VA.

For Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant: Theresa Ann Casey, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Philidelphia, PA.

OPINION

Page 608

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Hon. James C. Turk, Senior United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Linda Lawson (" Plaintiff" or " Lawson" ) 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. This Court has jurisdiction over the action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Both Lawson and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 15, 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, Lawson contends that the Commissioner erred in concluding she was not disabled. Her primary argument is that the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) erred by failing to evaluate and properly credit the opinions of Dr. Robert Devereaux, one of her treating physicians. See generally ECF No. 16.

Having reviewed the record, the Court concludes that reversal is required in this case. Dr. Devereux opined in December 2011 that Lawson's physical limitations prevented her from working. The ALJ determined that opinion was entitled only to " little" weight, and instead accorded greater weight to the opinions of two non-examining physicians who reviewed Lawson's records prior to the functional evaluation and did not even have access to Dr. Devereaux's report. Particularly because Dr. Devereaux's opinion was supported by the other medical evidence of record and not inconsistent with such other evidence, the ALJ's rejection of it is contrary to the Commissioner's own regulations and case law. For these reasons, explained in more detail below, the Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the

Page 609

Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 17, is DENIED, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 15, is GRANTED, and the case is REVERSED and REMANDED for a calculation of an award of benefits.

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, " [i]n 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).

Lawson 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; [1] (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, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (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

Page 610

facie case for disability. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the claimant maintains the residual functional capacity (" 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. ...


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