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Gray v. Colvin

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

September 17, 2014

CARL D. GRAY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment (docket nos. 12 and 16), the Report & Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (docket no. 20, hereinafter "R&R"), and Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (docket no. 21). Pursuant to Standing Order 2011-17 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court referred this matter to the Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition. The Magistrate Judge filed his R&R, advising this Court to deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff timely filed his Objections, obligating the Court 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 April 10, 2007, Plaintiff Carl Gray ("Plaintiff" or "Gray") protectively filed an application 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 his disability began on or before the date he applied for benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 416.501. To receive DBI benefits, Plaintiff must show his disability began before the date he was or will be last insured, which is December 31, 2011, 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).

Plaintiff was born on June 23, 1962, and he was forty-four years old at the time he filed his April 2007 applications. He claimed his disability began on July 30, 2006, as a result of both mental and physical impairments. Plaintiff's physical impairments include limited lung capacity, back problems, [1] and swelling in his hands and feet. He alleges that his back pain is constant, affects his ability to sleep for more than three or four hours at a time, and becomes progressively worse when performing job-related activities. Plaintiff's mental impairments consist of dyslexia and anxiety, and his anxiety is allegedly so debilitating that he is unable to work with others. Plaintiff most recently worked as a crane operator, but in July of 2006, he stopped working due to a lack of employment opportunities in his hometown.

A. The ALJ Decision

The state agency denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review, and on November 20, 2008, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas King held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's disability claim. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing, which included testimony from Gray, his mother, Carol Gray, and vocational expert Andrew V. Beale. Plaintiff testified that, due to his anxiety and back problems, he cannot interact with others and is unable to sit or stand for any significant period of time. On December 31, 2008, the ALJ entered his decision denying Gray's claim.

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 engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are 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 able to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specific types of work. 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 his 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 Gray's anxiety was "non-severe" and thus failed under step two of the disability inquiry. With respect to Gray's physical impairments, the ALJ found that Gray suffered from severe impairments of degenerative joint disease in the back, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), plantar fasciitis, and occasional swelling of the hands and feet with temperature sensitivity. At step three of the analysis, however, the ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. The ALJ further found that Gray has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform simple, unskilled work, but that such work should be restricted to indoor, daytime work with no exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, odors, dusts, gasses, poor ventilation, other respiratory irritants, and height hazards. Finally, the ALJ found that Gray is unable to return to his job as a crane operator and therefore cannot perform any past relevant work, though Gray could find alternative work as a cleaner or laundry sorter. The ALJ therefore concluded that Gray was not disabled.

Gray sought review of this decision with the Appeals Council, and on July 10, 2010, the Appeals Council granted the request for review and vacated the hearing decision. On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to: (1) further evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments; (2) give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum RFC with specific references in support of any assessed limitations; and (3) obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of Gray's limitations on his occupational base.

On May 9, 2011, ALJ Thomas King held a second hearing to consider Gray's disability claim. Gray was once again represented by counsel at this hearing, which included testimony from Gray's girlfriend, Brenda Sneed, as well as vocational expert Robert W. Jackson. At this hearing, Gray abandoned his position that he is disabled due to mental illness and argued that he is disabled as a result of his debilitating back, foot, and lung conditions. On June 30, 2011 the ALJ entered his decision denying Gray's disability claim.

First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 30, 2006, the alleged onset date of his disability. He further found that Gray suffered from COPD, as well as arthritis of the spine and knee. The ALJ found that these impairments caused more than minimal functional limitations and were thus "severe" under step two of the disability analysis. Nonetheless, at step three of the inquiry, the ALJ determined that Gray 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.

Based on a consideration of Plaintiff's medical record, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). However, the ALJ qualified this determination, stating that Plaintiff should (1) avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, and extreme temperatures (hot and cold); (2) work indoors in an environment with climate-controlled air; and (3) be given a sit/stand option at his workstation. In light of his RFC assessment, the ALJ determined that Gray could not return to his position as a crane operator and therefore could not return to any past relevant work. The ALJ nonetheless found, based on testimony by the vocational expert, that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work as a general production worker or material handler. On December 17, 2012, the Appeals Council ...


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