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Lee v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division

November 3, 2014

DUANE E. LEE, on behalf of Jacqueline K. Lee, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant

For Duane E. Lee, on behalf of Jacqueline K. Lee, Plaintiff: Jason Wells Fernandez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Greenberg & Bederman LLP, Silver Spring, MD.

For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security, Defendant: Dennis Carl Barghaan, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office, Alexandria, VA.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

John F. Anderson, United States Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the undersigned magistrate judge for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docket nos. 11, 13).[1] Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (" Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (" DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. The Commissioner's final decision is based on a finding by the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ") and Appeals Council for the Office of Disability and Adjudication and Review (" Appeals Council") that claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and applicable regulations.[2]

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment (Docket nos. 11, 13), along with briefs in support (Docket nos. 12, 14), which are now ready for resolution. For the reasons discussed below, the undersigned recommends that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Docket no. 13) be denied; the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Docket no. 11) be granted; and the Commissioner's final decision be affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Claimant filed her application for DIB on April 7, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of March 30, 2011.[3] In her application claimant cited several conditions, including: lupus, arthritis, skin rashes, depression, anxiety, kidney problems, migraines, and chronic back, knee, and hand pain. (AR 59). Claimant's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 95-99, 104-106).

Following claimant's request for a hearing before an ALJ on June 20, 2012 (AR 111-12), a hearing was held before ALJ Eugene Bond on February 12, 2013 (AR 43-58). On March 21, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that claimant was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (AR 24-37). Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision on April 5, 2013. (AR 19-20). During the pendency of this review, the Appeals Council sent a letter to the Social Security Office, stating: " We have been notified that the claimant died on December 19, 2013. In order to proceed with the case, the Appeals Council needs information as to whether there is an adversely affected party who wishes to continue the action." (AR 12). On January 28, 2014, Duane E. Lee submitted a request to be designated as a substitute party as claimant's surviving spouse. (AR 7).

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 28, 2014. (AR 1-5). As a result of this denial, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On May 30, 2014, plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Docket no. 1). Pursuant to the court's August 13, 2014 Order (Docket no. 8), this case is now before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (Docket nos. 11, 13).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the Social Security Act, the court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standard was applied in evaluating the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence means " such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). While the standard is high, where the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence on the record, or where the ALJ has made an error of law, the district court must reverse the decision. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

In determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must examine the record as a whole, but it may not " undertake to re-weigh the conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (alteration in original) (citing Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if the findings are supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive and must be affirmed. See Perales, 402 U.S. at 390. Moreover, the Commissioner is charged with evaluating the medical evidence and assessing symptoms, signs, and medical findings to determine the functional capacity of the claimant. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456-57. Overall, if the Commissioner's resolution of the conflicts in the evidence is supported by substantial evidence, the district court is to affirm the Commissioner's final decision. See Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Claimant's Age, Education, and Employment History

Claimant was born in 1970. (AR 906). Claimant was a high school graduate and attended college for two years before leaving college to take care of her children and grandmother. (AR 907). Claimant held several jobs after high school, including a hospital clerk/secretary, meeting assistant, meeting coordinator, and conference manager. ( Id ). Plaintiff alleges that claimant was rendered incapable of working beginning March 30, 2011 when she was terminated from her most recent job based on her inability to travel and perform assigned duties. (AR 48, 647). Claimant did not look for or resume work after March 30, 2011. (AR 48). Claimant was forty-two years old at the time of the ALJ's decision.

B. Summary of Claimant's Medical History[4]

In her April 2011 DIB application, claimant claimed disability based on the following illnesses, injuries, or conditions: lupus, arthritis, skin rashes, depression, anxiety, kidney problems, migraines, and chronic back, knee, and hand pain. (AR 59).

Beginning in May 2008, claimant began a series of orthopaedic evaluations for pain in her left knee. (AR 1110). An initial physical evaluation and x-rays of the knee on May 8, 2008 showed no significant acute fracture, dislocation, or radiologic abnormal finding. (AR 1110-11). On October 27, 2008, claimant returned for re-examination due to recurrent left knee pain. (AR 1106). A physical examination revealed mild effusion in the left knee and major tenderness in the medial joint line and medial femoral condyle. ( Id ). Claimant was advised to take pain medication and use a cane. ( Id.). An MRI taken in 2008 showed no significant major structural damage to the menisci or ligaments but did reveal some degree of signal change in the patellofemoral joint and mild effusion. (AR 1108).

In September 2008, claimant was diagnosed with menorrhagia and underwent a hysteroscopy, dilation, and curettage on September 5, 2008. (AR 350, 353). Claimant was to avoid any lifting or carrying of heavy objects until after her follow up appointment on September 18, 2008. (AR 476). No evidence was presented regarding any complications from this procedure.

Claimant was admitted to the hospital on September 6, 2010 after complaining of left-sided chest pain and shortness of breath. (AR 375). A chest x-ray and EKG were negative for significant abnormalities. (AR 376). A two-day stress test was performed which was unremarkable and showed no ischemia. (AR 373). Claimant also complained of abdominal pain and migraine headaches. ( Id.). CT scans performed on the brain and abdomen revealed no significant abnormalities. (AR 379-80). Prior ...


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