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Rice v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 8, 2014

MELANIE L. RICE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

This matter is before me on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (hereinafter "R&R"), and Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R. Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), I referred this matter to the Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. The Magistrate Judge recommended that I deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff timely filed Objections, obligating me to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which objections were made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Farmer v. McBride, 177 F.Appx. 327, 330 (4th Cir. 2006). For the following reasons, I will overrule Plaintiff's Objections and adopt the Magistrate Judge's R&R in full.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 20, 2010, Plaintiff Melanie Rice ("Plaintiff") applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DBI") payments under the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. To receive SSI benefits, Plaintiff must show that her disability began on or before the date she applied for benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 416.501. To receive DBI benefits, Plaintiff must show her disability began before the date she was or will be last insured, which is March 31, 2015, and that the disability existed for twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(4), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a).

An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on the claim on May 18, 2012. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was forty-four years old, had completed the eleventh grade, had obtained a general equivalency diploma ("GED"), and in 2010 had begun taking classes at Virginia Western Community College. Administrative Record (hereinafter "R."), at 41, 46. Plaintiff claimed that her disability began on August 8, 2010, when she was injured in a car accident, suffering a broken pelvis, broken ribs, removal of her spleen, liver lacerations, and a rupture of her diaphragm. R. 2, 35. Plaintiff's counsel represented during the hearing that Plaintiff continues to suffer from pain in her pelvis, lower back, hip, and head. R. 36. Plaintiff also has difficulty sleeping and concentrating. R. 37. Prior to the accident, Plaintiff worked as a receptionist in medical facilities for approximately eight to ten years. R. 48. Following the accident, and in April or May of 2011, Plaintiff attempted to work as a cashier at a convenience store, but claimed that the repetitive motion of sweeping the floor aggravated her back and pelvis injuries, causing her to go to the hospital, and she stated that she has not worked since then. R. 49.

A. The ALJ Decision

The state agency denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 86-105, 106-127. On May 18, 2012, ALJ Jeffrey J. Schueler held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's disability claim. R. 30-72. Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and both Plaintiff and an independent vocational expert testified. During the hearing, Plaintiff testified to suffering from pain in her back, pelvis, and head. R. 51. She also testified that she suffered from severe headaches brought on by stress and caused by traumatic brain injury, and that she had difficulty standing for long periods of time. R. 52-54.

Determining disability, and thus eligibility for Social Security benefits, involves a five-step inquiry. Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). In this process, the Commissioner asks whether (1) the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that is severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in Appendix I of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specific types of work. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 n. 1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in Steps 1-4. See Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). At Step 5, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner "to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering h[er] age, education, and work experience." Id. If a determination of disability can be made at any step, the Commissioner need not analyze subsequent steps. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 8, 2010, and that she suffered from residuals of the motor vehicle accident, including multiple fractures of the ribs and pelvis, removal of the spleen, and numbness of the face and tongue. R. 17. The ALJ found that these impairments caused more than minimal functional limitations and were thus "severe" under step two, whereas the mental impairments of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder did not cause more than a minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic activities and were thus non-severe. R. 17-18. At step three of the inquiry, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1.

Based on a consideration of Plaintiff's medical record, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except for that which involves more than occasional operation of foot controls with the left lower extremity; climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; involves more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, or climbing ramps or stairs; requires more than frequent rotation of the neck or more than frequent peripheral acuity; or involves exposure to hazards of concentrated exposure to noise or vibration. R. 19. Additionally, Plaintiff has an eleventh grade education, earned a GED, and was attending classes at a community college from which she was scheduled to graduate from in 2013. Id. Her past relevant work experience includes jobs as a medical receptionist, data entry operator, cashier, and seamstress. Id. The ALJ found, based in part on testimony by the vocational expert, that Plaintiff would be able to perform this kind of work in the future, specifically citing possible careers as a receptionist, appointment clerk, data entry clerk, or loan clerk. R. 22.

On May 13, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). R. 1. Plaintiff filed the instant suit on July 2, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

B. The Summary Judgment Motions

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give greater weight to the opinion of Dr. Thomas Shuler, Plaintiff's treating physician. Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. 22. Plaintiff acknowledges that the ALJ gave substantial weight to all of Dr. Shuler's opinions save for his projection regarding Plaintiff's future rate of work absences, but claims that the ALJ failed to consider the requisite factors in refusing to give controlling weight to this opinion. Id. at 23. Plaintiff further claims that the ALJ's credibility findings are not supported by substantial evidence, arguing that the ALJ failed to articulate explicit and adequate reasons for disbelieving some of Plaintiff's testimony. Id. at 26.

In response, Defendant argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, stressing that it is the ALJ's job to assess credibility and that the ALJ in this case did so properly. See Def.'s Mem. in Supp. 1. Defendant argues that an ALJ is not bound by the findings of a treating physician and asserts that the ALJ did give great weight to Dr. Shuler's findings in areas where his expertise was relevant. Defendant further claims, however, that the ALJ reasonably found that Dr. Shuler's absenteeism opinion was not supported by the objective medical evidence in the record. Id. at 9. Defendant states that the ALJ reasonably assessed the credibility of Plaintiff's testimony, finding ...


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