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Whisten v. Colvin

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

December 23, 2014

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


JOEL C. HOPPE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Brian Keith Whisten brought this action for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (the "Commissioner") decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Whisten asserts that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to afford sufficient weight to his treating physician's opinions.

This Court has authority to decide Whisten's case under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), and his case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by consent of the parties under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). ECF No. 24. After considering the administrative record, the parties' briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable law, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

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)). 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), 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. §§ 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

Whisten protectively filed for SSI and DIB on September 27, 2010. Administrative Record ("R.") 22. He was 40 years old and qualified as a "younger person, " 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). R. 29. Whisten had worked as a forklift operator, forklift supervisor, laborer, lumberyard laborer, and pizza baker. Id. He alleged disability beginning December 1, 2009, because of back surgery, disc problems, and high blood pressure. R. 69, 77. A state agency denied his applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 22.

Whisten appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing on April 3, 2012. Id. He testified to his prior work history, his alleged impairments, and his limitations in daily activities. R. 44-60. A Vocation Expert ("VE") testified to the types of jobs Whisten might perform given his age, education, work history, and physical limitations. R. 60-67.

In a written decision dated June 29, 2012, the ALJ found that Whisten was not disabled under the Act. R. 31. He found that Whisten had not performed substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date and that he suffered from a severe impairment of degenerative disc disease that did not meet or equal a listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 24-26. He determined that Whisten had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[1] to perform light work[2] except that he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, cannot walk on uneven surfaces, and must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. R. 26-29. The ALJ determined that with this RFC, Whisten was unable to perform his past relevant work, but was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as bagger, stock checker, and laundry sorter. R. 29-30. He therefore found that Whisten was not disabled and denied his applications. R. 30-31. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision and this appeal followed. R. 1.

III. Discussion

Whisten asserts that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision to afford two opinions from his treating neurosurgeon "little weight." I find that the ALJ evaluated the medical opinions and Whisten's credibility with the correct legal standard and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions.

An ALJ must consider and evaluate medical opinions in the case record from acceptable sources, such as physicians and psychologists. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927. A medical opinion is a statement "that reflects judgments about the nature and severity of [an applicant's] impairments, " including their symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, capability, and restrictions. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2). Generally, an ALJ determines the weight to afford a medical opinion by considering a variety of factors, including whether the doctor examined the claimant, the relationship between the doctor and the claimant, the degree to which the opinion is supported or contradicted by other evidence in the record, and whether the doctor's opinion pertains to his or her area of specialty. See Bishop v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 583 F.Appx. 65 (4th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (citing Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 (4th Cir. 2005)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). Opinions on dispositive issues reserved to the Commissioner, ...

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