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Mullins v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division

May 13, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant


Pamela Meade Sargent United States Magistrate Judge

I. Background and Standard of Review

Plaintiff, Tracey N. Mullins, filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), determining that he was not eligible for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. § 423. (West 2011). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). As directed by the order of referral, the undersigned now submits the following report and recommended disposition.

The court’s review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). ‘“If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.’”” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).

The record shows that Mullins protectively filed his application for DIB on May 15, 2009, alleging disability as of March 27, 2009, due to shoulder problems, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, arthritis in the back, severe anxiety and severe acid reflux. (Record, (“R.”), at 20, 180, 184, 244.) The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 99-101, 105-07, 110, 111-13, 115-17.) Mullins then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”), (R. at 118), which was held on July 12, 2011, and at which Mullins was represented by counsel. (R. at 38-60.)

By decision dated July 28, 2011, the ALJ denied Mullins’s claim. (R. at 20-30.) The ALJ found that Mullins met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013. (R. at 22.) He found that Mullins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 27, 2009, the alleged onset date of disability. (R. at 22.) The ALJ determined that the medical evidence established that Mullins suffered from severe impairments, including bilateral shoulder pain, right shoulder osteoarthritis, status-post arthroscopy and arthroplasty, back pain, degenerative disc disease, coronary artery disease, (“CAD”), status-post myocardial infarction, and depression, but he found that Mullins did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed at or medically equal to one listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 22-24.) The ALJ found that Mullins had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary[1]work that required lifting and/or carrying no more than 10 pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, no more than two hours of standing and/or walking in an eight-hour workday, no more than six hours of sitting in an eight-hour workday, no more than occasional bending, stooping, kneeling or crouching and no climbing or crawling. (R. at 24.) The ALJ further found that Mullins would require 10- to 15-minute breaks at two-hour intervals and that he may be absent from work 10 to 12 days annually. (R. at 24.) The ALJ also found that Mullins should avoid use of automotive equipment in a production setting, hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights and contact with the public. (R. at 24.) Thus, the ALJ found that Mullins was unable to perform his past relevant work as a truck driver, a loader operator, an auto detailer and a water sample collector. (R. at 28.) Based on Mullins’s age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Mullins could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including jobs as an assembler, a packer and an inspector/tester/sorter. (R. at 29.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Mullins was not under a disability as defined under the Act and was not eligible for DIB benefits. (R. at 30.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (2013).

After the ALJ issued his decision, Mullins pursued his administrative appeals, but the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Mullins then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (2013). The case is before this court on Mullins’s motion for summary judgment filed August 14, 2013, and the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment filed September 13, 2013.

II. Facts and Analysis[2]

Mullins argues that the ALJ erred by failing to adhere to the treating physician rule and give controlling weight to the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Thomas Roatsey, M.D. (Plaintiff’s Memorandum In Support Of His Motion For Summary Judgment, (“Plaintiff’s Brief”), at 6-8.) Mullins further argues that the ALJ erred by failing to give full consideration to the assessments and conclusions of psychologist Patrick Farley, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, regarding his mental impairments and their resulting effects on his ability to work. (Plaintiff’s Brief at 8-9.)

The Commissioner uses a five-step process in evaluating DIB claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2013); see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in order, whether a 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 his past relevant work; and 5) if not, whether he can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds conclusively that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (2013).

Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that he is unable to return to his past relevant work because of his impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must then establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 423(d)(2)(A) (West 2011); McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65; Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980).

As stated above, the court’s function in this case is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ’s findings. This court must not weigh the evidence, as this court lacks authority to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, provided her decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. In determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, the court also must consider whether the ALJ analyzed all of the relevant evidence and whether the ALJ sufficiently explained his findings and his rationale in crediting evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

Thus, it is the ALJ’s responsibility to weigh the evidence, including the medical evidence, in order to resolve any conflicts which might appear therein. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Taylor v. Weinberger, 528 F.2d 1153, 1156 (4th Cir. 1975). Furthermore, while an ALJ may not reject medical evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason, see King v. Califano, 615 F.2d 1018, 1020 (4th Cir. 1980), an ALJ may, under the regulations, assign no or little weight to a medical opinion, even one from a treating source, based on the factors set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c), if he sufficiently explains his rationale and if the record supports his findings.

Mullins was born in 1968, (R. at 163), which classifies him as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). He has a ninth-grade education[3] and past relevant work as a truck driver, a car salesman, a logger and a field technician for an environmental monitoring laboratory. (R. at 192, 195.) Mullins testified that he last worked as a field technician, collecting water samples and pumping gas well ponds, but had to quit working due to severe right shoulder pain. (R. at 45-46.) He testified that he had undergone a total right shoulder replacement and that he was right-hand dominant. (R. ...

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