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Lafferty v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Danville Division

October 21, 2014

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


Joel C. Hoppe, United States Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Kimberly Lafferty asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) final decision denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381–1383f. This Court has authority to decide Lafferty’s case under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), and her case is before me by referral under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Having considered the administrative record, the parties’ briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable law, I find that the Commissioner’s final decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

I. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner’s final decision that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). 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. § 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

Lafferty protectively filed for SSI on June 30, 2010. See Administrative Record (“R.”) 82. At the time, she was 40 years old and had worked for many years as a cashier. See R. 72, 82, 167. Lafferty said that she stopped working in July 2008 because of a host of medical conditions, including fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, and carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”). See R. 166. She later clarified that she stopped working to care for her sick child and occasionally worked while her application was pending. R. 51, 73–74, 166. A state agency denied Lafferty’s application initially and upon reconsideration. R. 81–90, 91–104.

Lafferty appeared pro se at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 21, 2012. See R. 16, 36–39. She testified as to many of her alleged impairments and the limitations they had on her daily activities. See R. 51–63. Her husband, Roger Lafferty (“Mr. Lafferty”), and a vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. See R. 66–70, 71–78.

In a written decision dated May 22, 2012, the ALJ found that Lafferty was not disabled after June 30, 2010. R. 16–28. The ALJ found that Lafferty suffered from severe fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, and diabetes mellitus. R. 18. He found that Lafferty’s “carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve problems” were non-severe impairments because a consultative examiner noted that her prognosis was “fair” and, with one exception, Lafferty “did not have any physical exams or complaints indicating that her [CTS] even minimally affected her ability to carry out basic work-related activities.”[1] R. 19. None of Lafferty’s severe impairments met or medically equaled an impairment listed in the Act’s regulations. R. 21.

The ALJ next determined that Lafferty had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to perform light work[3] with additional environmental, manipulative, and postural limitations. R. 22. Finally, relying on the VE’s testimony, the ALJ concluded that Lafferty was not disabled because she could return to her past work as a cashier as that job is “actually [or] customarily performed.” R. 28. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision on July 2, 2013, R. 1, and this appeal followed.

III. Discussion

Lafferty objects to the ALJ’s finding that she can perform light work as long as she only “occasionally” reaches overhead or pushes and pulls with her right arm. See generally Pl. Br. 12– 15, ECF No. 17. Lafferty argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Charles Scott, M.D., which Lafferty asserts limited her to sedentary work[4] with additional reaching and manipulative restrictions. See Id . at 12–14. She also objects that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her credibility. See Id . at 14–15.

A. Medical Opinions

ALJs must weigh each medical opinion[5] in the applicant’s record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). The regulations classify these opinions by their source: those from treating sources and those from non-treating sources. See Id . Opinions from non-treating sources are not entitled to any particular weight. See Id . Rather, the ALJ must consider certain factors in determining what weight to give such opinions, including the source’s familiarity with the applicant, the weight of the evidence supporting the opinion, the source’s medical specialty, and the opinion’s consistency with the full record. See Id . Ultimately, it is the ALJ’s job to determine whether the evidence of record supports the opinion. See Bishop v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., --- F. App’x ---, 2014 WL 4347190, at *1 (4th Cir. Sept. 3, 2014) (per curiam).

If the ALJ’s final RFC assessment conflicts with a medical opinion, he must explain why that opinion was not adopted in full. See Davis v. Colvin, No. 4:13cv35, slip op. at 6 (W.D. Va. Jul. 14, 2014) (Hoppe, M.J.), adopted by 2014 WL 3890495 (Aug. 7, 2014) (Kiser, J.). His “decision ‘must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight [he] gave’ to the opinion and ‘the reasons for that weight.’” Young v. Colvin, 7:12cv468, 2014 WL 991712, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar. 13, 2014) (quoting Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5 (Jul. 2, ...

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