United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
DEBORAH L. TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
For Deborah L. Taylor, Plaintiff: Gary Clay Hancock, LEAD ATTORNEY, GILMER, SADLER, INGRAM, SUTHERLAND & HUTTON, PULASKI, VA.
For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Defendant: Stephen Mark Ball, Office of General Counsel, SSA, Philadelphia, PA.
Hon. Glen E. Conrad, Chief United States District Judge.
Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § § 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues before this court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is not, whether plaintiff has met the burden of proof as prescribed by and pursuant to the Act. Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).
The plaintiff, Deborah L. Taylor, was born on October 7, 1963, and eventually reached the tenth grade in school. Mrs. Taylor has worked as a plumber's helper. She last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2005. On June 15, 2010, Mrs. Taylor filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An earlier application for such benefits had proven unsuccessful. In her second and current claim, plaintiff alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on August 5, 2009, due to fibromyalgia, depression, fatigue, constant pain, weakness in extremities, irritable bowel syndrome, and insomnia. Plaintiff now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. The record reveals that Mrs. Taylor met the insured status requirements of the Act through the fourth quarter of 2009, but not thereafter. See generally, 42 U.S.C. § § 416(i) and 423(a). Consequently, Mrs. Taylor is entitled to disability insurance benefits only if she has established that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment, within the meaning of the Act, at some point between August 5, 2009 and December 31, 2009. See generally, 42 U.S.C. § § 423(a).
Mrs. Taylor's application for benefits was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated June 21, 2012, the Law Judge also concluded Mrs. Taylor did not become disabled at any time prior to the termination of insured status. The Law Judge found that, during the relevant period, plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, including obesity, fibromyalgia, and degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine. Because of these conditions, the Law Judge ruled that plaintiff became disabled for her past relevant work prior to December 31, 2009. However, the Law Judge held that, during the period in which plaintiff still enjoyed insured status, Mrs. Taylor possessed residual functional capacity for a limited range of light work. The Law Judge assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant has the residual functional capacity
to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant could lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; could stand and/or walk for six hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crawl, stoop, and crouch; must have avoided exposure to hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, vibrating surfaces, and climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and must have avoided excessively loud background noise.
TR 30). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering plaintiff's age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge concluded that, prior to the termination of insured status, Mrs. Taylor retained sufficient physical capacity to perform several specific light work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. Accordingly, the Law Judge determined that Mrs. Taylor was not disabled, and that she is not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mrs. Taylor has now appealed to this court.
While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
After a review of the record in this case, the court is unable to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Mrs. Taylor suffers from fibromyalgia, as well as other physical and emotional manifestations generally associated with such a condition. As noted by the Law Judge, prior to the termination of insured status, plaintiff also experienced obesity and degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine. While recognizing that plaintiff's treating physician and a treating rheumatologist produced findings which indicate that plaintiff was unable to work on a regular and sustained basis, the Law Judge opined that the reports of the treating physicians were not supported by appropriate clinical notations. The Law Judge cited the earlier administrative opinion on plaintiff's first application for benefits, as well as a report from a nonexamining state ...