United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Theresa Louise Miller ("Miller") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Specifically, Miller alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by giving improper weight to the opinion of her treating physician and by relying on testimony from the vocational expert that insufficiently accounted for her intellectual limitations. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision on both grounds. As such, I RECOMMEND DENYING Miller's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 21), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 17.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Miller failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act. Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). "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).
Miller protectively filed for SSI and DIB on April 21, 2010, claiming that her disability began on April 20, 2010. R. 20, 224. The state agency denied her application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 132-44. On January 31, 2012, ALJ Brian Rippel held a hearing to consider Miller's disability claim. R. 35-77. Miller was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Miller and vocational expert Robert Jackson.
On February 17, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Miller's claim under the familiar five-step process and denying Miller's claim for benefits. R. 20-30. The ALJ found that Miller suffered from the severe impairments of cerebrovascular accident (CVA), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tobacco abuse, essential hypertension, hernias, degenerative lumbar disc disease, an affective disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, and somatoform disorder. R. 22-23. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 23. The ALJ further found that Miller retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, with additional limitations of only occasional climbing and stooping; frequent balancing, kneeling, crouching and crawling; no concentrated exposure to irritants, hazardous machinery, or unprotected heights; simple, routine, repetitive tasks; and occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. R. 24. The ALJ determined that Miller could not return to her past relevant work as a hearing aid solderer (R. 28), but that Miller could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an inspector or packer. R. 28-29. Thus, the ALJ concluded that she was not disabled. R. 29. On May 6, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Miller's request for review (R. 1-6), and this appeal followed.
Miller puts forth two arguments why the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. First, from a physical standpoint, Miller alleges that the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinion of his treating pain management physician. Second, from a mental standpoint, Miller asserts that the ALJ failed to adequately consider her low IQ and intellectual limitations in relying on testimony from the vocational expert.
Miller argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Marc Alan Swanson, M.D., of Blue Ridge Pain Management Associates ("Blue Ridge"). Dr. Swanson concluded in a physical functional assessment in January 2012 indicating that Miller was capable of a less than a full range of sedentary work activity, and that she would be absent from work a prohibitive amount of time. The ALJ accorded this opinion little weight because Dr. Swanson "essentially adopted the claimant's subjective statements without balance, objectivity, or support from the objective evidence of record documenting less frequent, conservative treatment and observations of less significant signs or symptoms." R. 27. I find that the ALJ's decision to accord lesser weight to the opinion of Dr. Swanson is supported by substantial evidence.
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).
From a physical standpoint, the medical record reflects that during the relevant period Miller reported back, shoulder, and hand pain. Treatment notes show that Miller's medical providers were primarily concerned about the level of muscle mass in her back, her tobacco abuse, and maintaining a healthy weight through nutrition and exercise.
Miller alleges disability starting April 20, 2010, when she saw Matthew Manico, PA-C at Blue Ridge Pain Management Associates ("Blue Ridge"). R. 377. Miller reported to Mr. Manico that she had been working four 13-hour shifts at Advance Auto, but that she was fired for failing to keep up with the production. Mr. Manico remarked that in light Miller's past problems with deficient muscle mass, weight, and conditioning, "it is not surprising she would have difficulty in a difficult work environment." Mr. Manico noted that Miller's weight at 108 pounds was deceptive because her muscle mass quality was "quite poor." Miller reported widespread pain in her spine. On examination, Mr. Manico noted that Miller was not in acute distress, was alert and oriented, but that she had trouble getting on and off the exam table "to a mild severity." Miller was kyphotic, had "terrible muscle mass along the thoracic spine, " shoulder motion showed end-range impingement, and her trunk motion was impaired. Mr. Manico also observed significant myofascial findings. Mr. Manico diagnosed Miller with polysegmental lumbar degenerative disc disease, myofascial pain, chronic lumbar myalgias, and poor appetite with cachexia, possibly ...