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Green v. Colvin

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

September 25, 2014

LAURA A. GREEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

This matter is before me on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment (docket nos. 13 and 15), the Report & Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou (docket no. 19, hereinafter "R&R"), Plaintiff's Objections to the R&R (docket no. 20), and the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") Response thereto (docket no. 21). 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 filed his R&R, advising that I should deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff timely filed her Objections, obligating me to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the R&R to which proper 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 October 9, 2007, Plaintiff Linda Green ("Plaintiff" or "Green") protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") 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.

Plaintiff was forty-two years old at the time she filed her October 2007 application. She claimed her disability began on October 1, 2007, as a result of both mental and physical impairments. Plaintiff's physical impairments include migraines, lower back pain, thyroid problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, acid reflux, tendonitis, and a ruptured colon. She claims her pain is so unbearable that sometimes "it makes [her] forget what [she is] doing." Plaintiff's mental impairments consist of depression and learning disabilities. Plaintiff most recently worked for one month in 2001 at a Wendy's restaurant. Her longest stint of employment lasted for approximately one year as an employee of Pizza Hut restaurant.

A. The ALJ Decision

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review, and on October 16, 2009, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas King held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's disability claim. At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she is disabled due to learning disabilities, depression, back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, and a thyroid condition. On November 16, 2009, the ALJ entered his decision denying Green'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).

At step two, the ALJ found Green suffers from severe impairments of carpal tunnel release, borderline intellectual functioning, and disorders of the spine. The ALJ determined that Green's claim failed at step three of the inquiry, however, because her impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ further found that Green had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, but that such work should be restricted to simple, unskilled work that does not require fine hand work. The ALJ therefore concluded that Green was not disabled.

Green sought review of this decision with the Appeals Council, and on March 23, 2011, the Appeals Council granted the request and vacated the hearing decision. On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to: (1) give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum RFC with specific references in support of any assessed limitations; and (2) obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of Green's limitations on her occupational base.

On January 5, 2012, ALJ Marc Mates held a second hearing to consider Green's disability claim. Green was represented by counsel at this hearing, which included testimony from Green as well as vocational expert Robert Jackson. At the hearing, Gray once again claimed that she is disabled as a result of physical and mental impairments. On January 13, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision denying Green's disability claim.

First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 9, 2007, the alleged onset date of her disability. He further found that Green suffered from back difficulty, adjustment disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. 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 Green 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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). In light of his RFC assessment and the testimony of vocational expert Robert Jackson, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform work as a cleaner, packer, or mail clerk. On April 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final ...


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