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Hawkins v. Colvin

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

August 5, 2014

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


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Richard T. Hawkins ("Hawkins") 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") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Hawkins alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by not finding that Hawkins was limited to sedentary work or less, and more specifically, that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of his treating physician and failed to adequately consider his ankle impairment. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Hawkins was capable of performing light work. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Hawkins' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 11), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 12.


This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Hawkins 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). 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). In cases such as this, where the claimant has submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council considered that evidence, this court must review the record as a whole, including the new evidence, to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Wilkins v. Sec'y, Dep't of Health and Human Servs. , 953 F.2d 93, 95-96 (4th Cir. 1991).


Hawkins protectively filed for SSI and DIB on February 15, 2011, claiming that his disability began on September 11, 2009. R. 13. Hawkins later amended his alleged onset date to November 19, 2011. R. 13. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 47-68, 69-90. On June 21, 2012, ALJ Brian P. Kilbane held a hearing to consider Hawkins' disability claim. R. 27-46. Hawkins was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Hawkins, his neighbor Richard Willburn, and vocational expert Ashley Wells. R. 27-46.

On June 29, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Hawkins' claim under the familiar five-step process[3] and denying his claims for benefits. R. 10-21. The ALJ found that Hawkins suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease status-post surgical fusion and right ankle degenerative joint disease status-post surgical repairs. R. 15. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 15. The ALJ further found that Hawkins retained the RFC to perform light work, with the following additional limitations:

the claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk with normal breaks for a total of about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, sit with normal breaks for a total of about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, frequently kneel and crouch or bend at the knees, occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop or bend at the waist, or crawl, but may never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and would need to avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards, including machinery and heights.

R. 16. The ALJ determined that Hawkins could not return to his past relevant work as a construction worker or a maintenance mechanic (R. 20), but that Hawkins could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: namely night cleaner, assembler, and cashier. R. 21. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Hawkins was not disabled. R. 21-22. On May 17, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Hawkins' request for review (R. 1-5), and this appeal followed.


Hawkins generally asserts that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's finding that he was capable of performing light work, and that at best he could work at the sedentary exertional level. Hawkins argues that because of his age a limitation to sedentary work would cause him to "grid-out" under Medical-Vocational Rule 201.14, which would direct a finding of "disabled."[4] Specifically, Hawkins contends that the ALJ accorded improper weight to the opinion of his treating pain management doctor, and correspondingly, that the ALJ failed to adequately consider his ankle impairments. I find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision as a whole.

Hawkins argues that the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinion rendered by his treating pain management physician, Murray Joiner, M.D., who treated both Hawkins' ankle and back conditions. Dr. Joiner has not completed a medical source statement providing a specific analysis of Hawkins' impairments or functional limitations. Nevertheless, Dr. Joiner stated in a February 2012 treatment note that Hawkins was likely disabled as a result of his pathology. R. 685. The ALJ considered this opinion, but found the "opinion to be inconsistent with a longitudinal review of the credible evidence of record." R. 19. Specifically, the ALJ identified a treatment note from Hawkins' back surgeon that he would be able to return to work within a few months of back surgery as evidence that Hawkins is not disabled. Hawkins contends that in rejecting Dr. Joiner's opinion in this manner the ALJ failed to adequately consider his ankle impairment, which was a focus of Dr. Joiner's treatment.

The social security regulations require that an ALJ give the opinion of a treating physician source controlling weight, if he finds the opinion "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques" and "not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The ALJ must give "good reasons" for not affording controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); Saul v. Astrue , 2011 WL 1229781, at *2 (S.D. W.Va. March 28, 2011). Further, if the ALJ determines that a treating physician's medical opinion is not deserving of controlling weight, the following factors must be considered to determine the appropriate weight to which the opinion is entitled: (1) the length of treatment and frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the opinion's support by medical evidence; (4) the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; and (5) the treating physician's specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2)-(5). "None of these factors may be omitted or disregarded by the ALJ in weighing the value of a treating physician's opinion." Ricks v. Comm'r , 2010 WL 6621693, at *10 (E.D. Va. Dec. 29, 2010) (citations omitted).

The record reflects that, prior to the relevant period, Hawkins sustained several right ankle injuries and underwent multiple surgeries as a result. In addition to ankle problems that persisted into the relevant period, Hawkins suffered from back and leg pain for which he underwent a diskectomy and fusion at the L4-S1 level in March 2012. R. 691-692, 725-734. Medical records following the surgery, however, ...

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