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O'Connell v. Colvin

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

September 30, 2014



NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.

This matter is before me on the parties' motions for summary judgment, the Report & Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou, Plaintiff's objections to the R&R, and the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") Response thereto. Pursuant to 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 his 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.App'x 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.


On December 6, 2010, Plaintiff Thomas O'Connell ("Plaintiff" or "O'Connell") filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") payments under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff's last insured date was December 31, 2012, and thus to receive DIB benefits, he must show that his disability began before that date and existed for twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a).

Plaintiff was sixty-one years old when he filed his application in December 2010. He claimed his disability began on December 15, 2009, as a result of both mental and physical impairments. Plaintiff's physical impairments include complete loss of hearing in his right ear, partial loss of hearing in his left ear, difficulties maintaining balance, and arthritic gout in his feet. Plaintiff's loss of hearing occurred as a result of "sudden sensorineural hearing loss, " and it now causes severe ringing in his ears, which "makes it difficult to focus and concentrate." Plaintiff's mental impairments consist of depression and anxiety. He claims his depression and anxiety occasionally render him unable to concentrate, focus, or sleep. Plaintiff most recently worked as an attorney, practicing intellectual property law. In late 2007, he left the practice due to a stressful divorce.

A. The ALJ's Decision

The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review, and on August 22, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing to consider Plaintiff's disability claim. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing, which included testimony from Plaintiff as well as a vocational expert ("VE"). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he is disabled due to hearing loss, gouty arthritis of the feet, alcoholism, and anxiety disorder. On August 30, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision denying Plaintiff's claim.

Determining Social Security disability 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).

First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2009, the alleged onset date of his disability. He further found that Plaintiff suffered from hearing loss, gouty arthritis of the feet, possible mild degenerative joint disease in the hands and feet, anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, and history of substance abuse. 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 Plaintiff 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 residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), but that such work should not require anything more than occasional climbing, kneeling, and crawling. The ALJ also stated that Plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to noise. In light of Plaintiff's RFC assessment and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform work as a hospital cleaner or kitchen helper. The ALJ therefore determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. On May 29, 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). Plaintiff filed this suit on June 27, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.

B. The Summary Judgment Motions

In his summary judgment filings, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed five errors. First, he contends the ALJ failed to properly consider the extent and impact of Plaintiff's hearing loss in determining Plaintiff's RFC. Second, he argues the ALJ erred in relying upon the opinion of Dr. William Humphries. Third, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erroneously failed to give greater weight to the opinion of Dr. David Hartman. Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's credibility findings are not supported by substantial evidence. Finally, he argues the ALJ erred in finding that he can perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c).

In response, Defendant states the ALJ thoroughly considered Plaintiff's medical record and reasonably accounted for Plaintiff's hearing limitations by assigning him work that requires "no hearing ability at all." Second, Defendant asserts that the ALJ's consideration of Drs. Humphries and Hartmans' opinions is supported by substantial evidence. Third, Defendant argues that the ALJ's decision regarding Plaintiff's credibility is supported by substantial evidence because, among other things, Plaintiff misrepresented the extent of his alcohol consumption during his ...

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