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Williams v. Colvin

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

October 3, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOEL C. HOPPE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Jeffrey W. Williams seeks review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. On appeal, Williams argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in not finding that his impairment met the listing for intellectual disability, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 12.05 (2014).[1] This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), and this case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by referral under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After carefully reviewing the administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the applicable law, I find that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and I recommend that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

I. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner's final determination that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 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, and 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a) (governing claims for DIB), 416.905(a) (governing adult claims for SSI). 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), 416.920(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

Williams was born on December 2, 1961, Administrative Record [hereinafter R.] 174, 179, and at the time of the ALJ's decision was considered a "person closely approaching advanced age" under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). He completed the tenth grade, having been enrolled in special education classes, R. 275-76, and has prior work history as a tobacco blender, box sorter, laborer, and brick mason, R. 42-43, 194-95, 205, 269. Williams applied for DIB on August 31, 2010, R. 174-75, and SSI on September 8, 2010, R. 178-85. He alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2006, based on the following conditions: diabetes, artery blockage, arthritis, gout, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. R. 174, 178, 203.

The Commissioner rejected Williams's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 19. On May 29, 2012, the ALJ held an administrative hearing at which Williams was represented by counsel. R. 34-65. In an opinion dated June 28, 2012, the ALJ found that Williams had diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, bilateral arthritis of the knees, status-post right shoulder tendinopathy and tear, morbid obesity, and degenerative disc disease, which qualify as severe impairments. R. 21. The ALJ determined that Williams did not have a severe mental impairment, including intellectual disability. R. 22-23. Analyzing only Williams's severe physical impairments, the ALJ determined that none of them met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 23-24. The ALJ found that Williams had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than a full range of light work, [2] and he can frequently climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally lift overhead with his dominant right arm. R. 24-25. Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Williams was not capable of performing his past work as a bricklayer. R. 28. The ALJ then found that Williams could perform other work, considering his RFC. R. 28-29. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Williams was not disabled under the Act. R. 29. The Appeals Council denied Williams's request for review R. 1-3, and this appeal followed.

In the appeal before this Court, the Commissioner moved to dismiss Williams's complaint, asserting that Williams had not timely filed it. ECF Nos. 6, 7. Williams responded by pointing out that the Commissioner had confused him with another "Jeffrey W. Williams." ECF No. 9. The Commissioner moved to withdraw her motion to dismiss. ECF No. 10. On February 18, 2014, the Court granted the Commissioner's motion to withdraw the motion to dismiss and extended the time for the Commissioner to file a responsive pleading to March 4, 2014. ECF No. 11. That same day, Williams moved for summary judgment on the sole basis that the Commissioner had not filed a timely responsive pleading, ECF No. 12, and the Commissioner filed an Answer, ECF No. 13. Because the Commissioner's Answer was filed within the period allowed by the Court's Order, I recommend that the Court deny Williams's first motion for summary judgment.

Both parties have now moved for summary judgment on the merits. Williams argues that the ALJ erred in not finding that he met the listing for intellectual disability under § 12.05(B).[3]

III. Discussion

Listing § 12.05 addresses intellectual disability or "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning." 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 12.05. Prong 1 of the listing requires a showing of "deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22." Id. Prong 2 requires that the claimant meet one of four "level[s] of severity for the disorder, " listed as A-D. Id. At issue in this case is requirement B, which requires a "valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 59 or ...

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