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Coe v. Colvin

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

July 7, 2014

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


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Hassel Albert Coe ("Coe") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ("Commissioner"), finding him not disabled and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Specifically, Coe alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to properly account for his non-exertional impairments and by failing to reconcile the jobs listed by the vocational expert with Coes limited educational level.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before me by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties have fully briefed all issues and the case is now ripe for decision. I have carefully reviewed the administrative record, the legal memoranda, and the applicable law. I conclude that the ALJs decision is supported by substantial evidence. As such, I RECOMMEND DENYING Coes Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 12), and GRANTING the Commissioners Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 14.


Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code authorizes judicial review of the Commissioners denial of social security benefits. Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). This court limits its review to determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioners conclusion that Coe failed to demonstrate that he was disabled under the Act.[2] "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). If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

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 his past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether he can perform other work. Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520); Heckler v. Campbell , 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983). 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 Residual Functioning Capacity ("RFC"), considering the claimants 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).


Coe was born on November 14, 1964 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 35), and is considered a younger person under the Act as of his alleged onset date. R. 21; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Coe filed for DIB on August 4, 2009, claiming that his disability began on March 27, 2009 (R. 11) due to back injuries, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bad knees and hands, and depression/anxiety. R. 35, 176. Coe later amended his alleged onset date to July 1, 2010. R. 33, 152.

The state agency denied Coes application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 59-63, 67-69. On August 12, 2011, ALJ William B. Russell held a hearing to consider Coes disability claim. R. 27-34. Coe could not attend the hearing due to incarceration (R. 29), but he was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from a vocational expert. R. 27-34.

On August 24, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision denying Coes claims. R. 11-22. The ALJ found that Coe suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine status-post diskectomy, obesity, hypertension, psoriatic arthritis involving his hands, wrists, shoulders and knees, right plantar fasciitis, depression and anxiety. R. 13. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 14. The ALJ further found that Coe retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of sedentary work with multiple exertional and non-exertional limitations. Relevant to the issues in this case, the ALJ found that Coe is limited to simple, repetitive tasks involving no contact with the public. R. 15. The ALJ determined that Coe could not return to his past relevant work as a dock worker, extrusion operator, [3] or production worker (R. 21), but that Coe could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy such as ticket checker, telephone quotation clerk, or general office clerk. R. 22. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Coe was not disabled. R. 22. On December 18, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Coes request for review (R. 1-3), and this appeal followed.


Non-Exertional Limitations

Coe argues that the ALJ erred in this case by failing to fully develop the evidence and account for his non-exertional impairments; specifically, his limitations with social functioning. The ALJ found that Coes depression and anxiety would limit him to simple, repetitive tasks with no public contact. R. 19. Coe acknowledges that the record contains minimal evidence relating to his depression and anxiety, or any other mental impairments. Indeed, the only opinion in the record relating to Coes mental capacity was rendered by licensed clinical social worker Dwight Miller, a non-acceptable medical source, over six months prior to Coes alleged disability onset date. R. 274-81. However, Coe claims that Mr. Millers opinion, together with Coes report that he was laid off from his employment in 2009 due to chronic tardiness, establishes that Coe should be restricted from interacting with co-workers, in addition to the ALJs restriction against contact with the public.

On December 8, 2009, William Humphries, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Coe. R. 303-08. Dr. Humphries noted that Coe was alert, pleasant and cooperative. R. 304. Coe was also oriented, with intelligible speech; his thought, idea and content were within normal limits; ...

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