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Mollette v. Colvin

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

July 7, 2014

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


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff David Martin Mollette III ("Mollette") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") determining that he was not disabled and therefore not eligible for supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Specifically, Mollette alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by finding his subjective complaints of pain and fatigue less than fully credible.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). This case is before me by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties have fully briefed and argued all issues, and the case is ripe for decision. I have carefully reviewed the administrative record, the legal memoranda, the arguments of counsel, and the applicable law. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision denying benefits. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Mollette's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 15), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 17.


This court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Mollette failed to demonstrate that he was disabled under the Act.[1] "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). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).


Mollette was 41 years old and considered a younger person under the Act on his alleged onset date. R. 20; 20 C.F.R. § 416.963. He received his GED, and previously worked full-time as a mechanic and handyman. R. 37. He is a registered sex offender, and was in and out of prison during the alleged period of disability. R. 34-38. At the time of the administrative hearing, Mollette worked part-time for a friend cleaning out a garage to help pay his child support. R. 34.

Mollette protectively filed for SSI on October 19, 2009, claiming that his disability began on September 4, 2009. R. 15, 142. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 52-59, 61-70. On November 2, 2011, ALJ Steven A. DeMonbreum held a hearing to consider Mollette's disability claim. R. 26-51. Molette was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Mollette and vocational expert Ashley Wells. R. 26-51. At the hearing, Mollette amended his onset date to October 19, 2009. R. 31.

On November 25, 2011, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing the claim under the familiar five-step process and denying Mollette's claims.[2] R. 15-22. The ALJ found that Mollette suffered from the severe impairment of trigeminal neuralgia, [3] which did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 17-18. The ALJ determined that Mollette retained the RFC to perform medium work, and specifically that he can frequently climb stairs, balance, kneel, stoop, bend, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and must avoid all exposure to machinery, unprotected heights, and hazards. R. 18. The ALJ determined that Mollette could not return to his past relevant work as a mechanic (medium, skilled work), siding and window installer (medium, semiskilled work), and cleaner (unskilled, medium work) (R. 20), but that Mollette could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: namely kitchen helper, dining room attendant, and warehouse worker. R. 21. Thus, the ALJ concluded that he was not disabled. R. 22. On March 28, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Mollette's request for review (R. 1-4), and this appeal followed.


Mollette raises only one issue on appeal: whether the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony that his pain and fatigue render him incapable to perform substantial gainful activity. Mollette's disability claim hinges on his subjective testimony that he suffers from disabling pain and fatigue as a result of his trigeminal neuralgia. At the administrative hearing, Mollette testified that his trigeminal neuralgia causes extreme, sharp, stabbing pains of various degrees in his face about five or six times a day. R. 39. The pain initially only affected the left side of his face, but now affects both sides. R. 39. Mollette testified that he is prescribed Neurontin, which helps keep his pain at a minimum, although he still has pain on a daily basis. R. 40. Mollette testified that his pain interferes with his daily activities, and causes him to feel fatigued. R. 41. Mollette asserted that he must lie down anywhere from three to eight times a day due to pain and fatigue. R. 41. Mollette also testified that the trigeminal neuralgia medication makes him feel dizzy, causing him to stumble when standing and walking. R. 41. Mollette argues that this testimony establishes that he is disabled.

Mollette's subjective allegations of disabling pain are not conclusive. Rather, the ALJ must examine all of the evidence, including the objective medical record, and determine whether Mollette met his burden of proving that he suffers from an underlying impairment which is reasonably expected to produce his claimed symptoms. Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 592-93 (4th Cir. 1996). The ALJ then must evaluate the intensity and persistence of the claimed symptoms and their effect upon Mollette's ability to work. Id . at 594-95. A review of the record as a whole demonstrates that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to find Mollette's subjective testimony partially credible, and determine that he is capable of performing medium work.

Mollette's medical evidence is sparse. Prior to his alleged onset date, Mollette was diagnosed with and sought treatment for trigeminal neuralgia. R. 217-18, 238-42. Throughout the relevant period, Mollette sought treatment primarily with the Bradley Free Clinic, which managed and prescribed his medications. On November 5, 2008, neurologist Christopher Scherer, M.D., reported that Mollette's trigeminal neuralgia was "doing well" on Tegratol and Neurontin with no side effects. Dr. Sherer continued Mollette's medications. R. 217. On November 11, 2008, Mollette visited the Bradley Free Clinic and noted that his facial pain had not bothered him for several weeks, and that he felt more energetic and was able to walk around normally without feeling fatigued. R. 238.

In April 2009, Mollette suffered a seizure while incarcerated, and was found unconscious in his cell. R. 221-30, 269-70. Follow up tests of his head were normal. R. 226.[4] After his release from prison, Mollette continued to seek treatment with the Bradley ...

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