United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
CYNTHIA B. BLUM, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
JOEL C. HOPPE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Cynthia Blum asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Blum objects to the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") finding that she did not have a severe medically determinable impairment and asserts that the Commissioner failed in her duty to develop Blum's medical record. She asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits, or to remand her case for further administrative proceedings.
This Court has authority to decide Blum's case under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and her case is before me by referral under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). ECF No. 14. After considering the administrative record, the parties' briefs, oral argument, and the applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision that Blum was not entitled to DIB and that the Commissioner fulfilled her duty to develop Blum's medical record. Therefore, I recommend that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision.
I. Standard of Review
The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner's final decision that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it may not "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment" for that of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, the Court asks only whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011).
"Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, " Id., but not necessarily "a large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account the entire record, not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984); Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487-89 (1951). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ's factual findings if "conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, "[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law." Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
A person is "disabled" if he or she is unable engage in "any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Social Security ALJs follow a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the applicant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past relevant work based on his or her residual functional capacity; and, if not, (5) whether he or she can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983). The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. At step five, the burden shifts to the agency to prove that the applicant is not disabled. See id.
II. Procedural History
Blum filed for DIB on December 8, 2010, alleging disability beginning January 1, 1998. Administrative Record ("R.") 106. Her last insured date is December 31, 1998. R. 14. At filing, Blum was 46 years old and had worked as a cashier, dining room manager, and hostess. See R. 106, 199. During 1998, Blum was a stay-at-home mother. R. 212. Blum claimed inability to work because of manic depression, acute psychosis, and bipolar disorder. R. 138. A state agency denied Blum's application initially and upon reconsideration. R. 50, 55.
Blum appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing on June 23, 2011. R. 538. She testified to the onset and history of her symptoms, the treatment for them, and her past work. R. 539-44. No one else testified at Blum's hearing. See R. 537. In a written decision dated July 29, 2011, the ALJ found that Blum was not disabled under the Act. R. 12-16.
The ALJ found that Blum did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 1, 1998, through her last insured date of December 31, 1998. R. 14. The ALJ noted that although Blum's work activity rose to the level of substantial gainful activity in 2006, the record does not support a decision to deny her claim based solely on work activity. Id.
At step two, the ALJ found that Blum did not suffer from a medically determinable impairment through her last insured date. R. 14-15. He noted that from January 1 through December 31, 1998, the record contains treatment notes only for right knee pain and allergic rhinitis. R. 15. The ALJ found that evaluations of Blum's physical symptoms alone could not support finding an impairment and that there were no medical signs or laboratory findings in the record to substantiate Blum's claim of a mental impairment. Id. He therefore denied Blum's application, finding that she was not disabled during her period of coverage. Id. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on October 2, 2012, R. 4, and this appeal followed.
On appeal, Blum objects to the ALJ's finding that she did not suffer from a severe medically determinable mental impairment through her last insured date. She also asserts that the Commissioner failed in her duty to develop Blum's complete medical record for the 12 months preceding her alleged onset date. Pl. Br. 4, ECF No. 16.
A. Severe Medically Determinable Impairment
Blum asserts that if the ALJ had examined the entire record, he could not have concluded that she did not have a medically determinable impairment. Pl. Br. 5. She is correct. There is sufficient evidence in the record to conclude that Blum suffered from a medically determinable impairment between January 1 and December 31, 1998. There is not, however, sufficient evidence to conclude that she had a severe impairment. The ALJ's error was therefore harmless. See Austin v. Astrue, No. 7:06cv622, 2007 WL 3070601, at *6 (W.D. Va. Oct. 18, 2007) (Urbanski, M.J.) ("Errors ...