United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division
JEFFREY A. SIFFORD, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
PAMELA MEADE SARGENT, Magistrate Judge.
I. Background and Standard of Review
Plaintiff, Jeffrey A. Sifford, ("Sifford"), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ("Commissioner"), denying his claims for disability insurance benefits, ("DIB"), and supplemental security income, ("SSI"), under the Social Security Act, as amended, ("Act"), 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 423 and 1381 et seq. (West 2011 & West 2012). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge upon transfer by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1).
The court's review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is "substantial evidence."" Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).
The record shows that Sifford protectively filed his applications for SSI and DIB on June 19, 2009, alleging disability as of June 1, 2009, due to back and hip problems and depression. (Record, ("R."), at 24, 208-14, 242, 266.) The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 132-34, 138, 139-44.) Sifford then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, ("ALJ"). (R. at 146.) A hearing was held on October 26, 2011, at which Sifford was represented by counsel. (R. at 37-64.)
By decision dated December 8, 2011, the ALJ denied Sifford's claims. (R. at 24-32.) The ALJ found that Siffford met the disability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through December 31, 2013. (R. at 26.) The ALJ found that Sifford had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (R. at 26.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Sifford had severe impairments, namely a disc bulge, degenerative disc desiccation and changes, narrowing in the lumbar spine and mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ("COPD"), but the ALJ found that Sifford did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 26-27.) The ALJ found that Sifford had the residual functional capacity to perform light work,  that required him to only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch and climb ramps and stairs, that did not require him to crawl, kneel or operate foot controls, to have concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, excess respiratory irritants, excessively loud background noise and that did not expose him to hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, vibrating surfaces, ladders, ropes and scaffolds. (R. at 28-29.) The ALJ found that Sifford was unable to perform his past relevant work. (R. at 30.) Based on Sifford's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that Sifford could perform, including jobs as a packer, an assembler, an inspector/tester/sorter. (R. at 31.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Sifford was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not eligible for DIB or SSI benefits. (R. at 32.) See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g) (2013).
After the ALJ issued her decision, Sifford pursued his administrative appeals, (R. at 16), but the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Sifford then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481 (2013). This case is before this court on Sifford's motion for summary judgment filed December 30, 2013, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed March 4, 2014.
Sifford was born in 1964, (R. at 41, 208, 213), which, at the time of the ALJ's decision, classified him as a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). Sifford has a high school education and vocational training as a computer controlled cutting machine operator. (R. at 41-42, 247.) He has past work experience as a grinder operator, a router loader, a construction laborer and a butcher/meat dresser. (R. at 59-60, 231.)
Vocational expert, John Newman, testified at Sifford's hearing. (R. at 58-63.) Newman stated that Sifford's past work as a grinder operator was medium,  semi-skilled work, his job as a router loader was medium, unskilled work, his job as a construction laborer was heavy and semi-skilled work, and his job as a butcher/meat dresser was heavy, skilled work. (R. at 59-60.) The ALJ asked Newman to consider a hypothetical individual who could perform light work, who could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop and crouch, who should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, excess humidity, irritants and pollutants, who should avoid crawling, kneeling, hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds, vibrating surfaces, excessively loud background noise and foot controls. (R. at 60.) Newman testified that such an individual could not perform any of Sifford's past work. (R. at 60.) Newman identified jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national or regional economy that such an individual could perform, including jobs as an assembler, a bottle packer and an inspector/tester/sorter. (R. at 60-61.) Newman stated that there would be no jobs available that the individual could perform should the individual be limited as indicated in the May 17, 2010, assessment of Dr. Samina Yousuf, M.D. (R. at 61-63, 428.)
In rendering her decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Castlewood Community Medical Center; Community Medical Care 1; Dr. Robert McGuffin, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. Michael Hartman, M.D., a state agency physician; Russell County Medical Center; Dr. William Humphries, M.D.; Dr. John C. Fraser, M.D., a neurologist; Dr. Mark Shaffrey, M.D., a neurosurgeon; Dr. Samina Yousuf, M.D.; Dr. Joselin Tacas Tacas, M.D.; and Dr. Vijay Kumar, M.D. Sifford's attorney also submitted medical reports from Castlewood Community Medical Center and Dr. Yousuf to the Appeals Council.
On October 16, 2008, Dr. Vijay Kumar, M.D., a physician with Community Medical Care 1, reported that Sifford's shoulders showed no point tenderness and no crepitations with a full range of motion, his elbows showed no swelling, tenderness or crepitations and had a full range of motion, and he had full range of motion of the hands and fingers without swelling or joint deformities. (R. at 312-15.) Sifford's hips and knees had no tenderness, crepitations or swelling, and he had full range of motion. (R. at 315.) Sifford denied muscle aches, weakness, cramps, spasms and joint stiffness, pain or swelling. (R. at 313.) Dr. Kumar noted that Sifford's hypertension was controlled with medication. (R. at 312.)
On February 11, 2009, Dr. Joselin Tacas Tacas, M.D., a physician with Community Medical Care 1, saw Sifford for complaints of right ankle, leg and hip pain. (R. at 316-18.) Dr. Tacas Tacas reported that Sifford had tenderness on range of motion in these areas. (R. at 318.) Sifford had an antalgic gait, and no gross sensory deficits were noted. (R. at 318.) On May 1, 2009, Sifford reported that his right ankle and leg pain had resolved. (R. at 320.) On May 26, 2009, Sifford reported right hip and ankle pain. (R. at 324.) Sifford had tenderness on range of motion in his right knee, hip and ankle. (R. at 326.) Sifford had an antalgic gait, and no gross sensory deficits were noted. (R. at 326.) On May 26, 2009, an x-ray of Sifford's lumbar spine showed mild degenerative changes. (R. at 303.) X-rays of Sifford's right hip, right ankle and right knee taken the same day were normal. (R. at 304-06.) On June 9, 2009, an MRI of Sifford's lumbar spine showed right L5-S1 disc protrusion with neural impingement, minimal L4-L5 disc bulge without neural impingement and mild anterior spur formation at T12-L4 disc levels. (R. at 302.) On June 23, 2009, Sifford complained of back and right hip pain with tingling, burning and numbness in his right leg. (R. at 328-30.) Dr. Tacas Tacas reported that Sifford had tenderness on range of motion in these areas. (R. at 330.) Sifford had an antalgic gait, and no gross sensory deficits were noted. (R. at 330.) On July 22, 2009, Jenny Pruitt, PA-C, a certified physician's assistant at Community Medical Care 1, noted that Sifford's hypertension, disc disorder and hyperlipidemia were all controlled. (R. at 334-36.) On October 21, 2009, Sifford reported that physical therapy had helped his back pain. (R. at 371.) On November 25, 2009, Sifford reported that his chronic lower back pain, right leg pain, COPD and allergies were controlled with medication. (R. at 367-69.)
On September 21, 2009, Dr. Mark Shaffrey, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia Hospital, saw Sifford for his complaints of chronic low back pain with intermittent radiation down his right lower extremity. (R. at 347-48.) Sifford had tenderness to palpation in his lumbar spine with no evidence of muscle spasm. (R. at 347.) He had pain and limited weakness throughout his bilateral lower extremities with positive straight leg raising tests in both legs. (R. at 347.) Since it was Sifford's desire to proceed with all ...