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Smith v. Colvin

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

October 14, 2014

SAMMY SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOEL C. HOPPE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Sammy Smith 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, Smith argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in determining his residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 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

Smith was born on November 8, 1968, Administrative Record ("R.") 200, and at the time of the ALJ's decision was considered a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). He graduated high school and completed two years of college. R. 236. He worked as a millwright in construction from 1995 to 2010. R. 237.

Smith applied for SSI on June 6, 2012, R. 200-08, and for DIB on July 12, 2012, R. 209-10.[1] He alleged a disability onset date of December 17, 2011, because of colon cancer, hemochromotosis, hernia, and memory loss. R. 236.

The Commissioner rejected Smith's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 18. On April 24, 2013, the ALJ held an administrative hearing at which Smith was represented by counsel. R. 34-51. In an opinion dated April 26, 2013, the ALJ found that Smith had colon disorder status post stage IIIB colon cancer, status post traumatic head injury, hemochromatosis, organic mental disorder, and affective disorder, which qualified as severe impairments. R. 20. None of the impairments met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 21-22. The ALJ found that Smith had the RFC to perform light work, [2] except that he can frequently climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequently climb and balance; and occasionally stoop, crouch, and crawl. R. 22. Additionally, he could perform only simple, unskilled tasks. Id. Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Smith could not perform his past work, but was capable of performing other work at the light level. R. 27-29. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Smith was not disabled under the Act. R. 29. The Appeals Council denied Smith's request for review, R. 1-4, and this appeal followed.

III. Discussion

A. Relevant Facts

On May 29, 2012, Smith was seen by his oncologist. Smith reported that he remained fatigued and depressed and was not taking any medications. R. 346. His oncologist prescribed Prozac with an initial dosage of 20 mg, increasing to 40 mg. R. 348.

On August 16, 2012, Dr. Dana R. Blackmer, Ph.D, conducted a consultative mental status examination of Smith. R. 356-59. She noted that Smith had been diagnosed with depression, had undergone outpatient psychiatric care, and was taking Prozac. R. 356. Smith reported having low energy and social interest and variable sleep. Id. Smith stated that he completed two years of college and worked as a machine operator ...

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