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Carter v. Colvin

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

February 10, 2015

RHONDA L. CARTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Rhonda L. Carter ("Carter") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") determining that she was not disabled and therefore not eligible for supplemental security income ("SSI"), and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 401-433, 1381-1383f. Specifically, Carter alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erroneously found that Carter can frequently reach, handle, and finger. Carter argues instead that she can only occasionally reach, handle, and finger. She contends that her more restrictive functional limitation, coupled with the ALJ's finding that Carter can only work at the sedentary exertional level, should have led to a finding that she was disabled. Carter also claims that the ALJ improperly discredited Carter's testimony about the severity of her limitations. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision on both grounds. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Carter's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 15), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 17.


This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Carter failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[1] Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).


Carter protectively filed for SSI and DIB on July 31, 2009, claiming that her disability began on July 15, 2008. R. 193-99, 209. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 121-26. On February 14, 2012, ALJ Joseph T. Scruton held a hearing to consider Carter's disability claim. R. 40-63. Carter was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Carter and vocational expert Robert Jackson. R. 40-63.

On April 23, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Carter's claim under the familiar five-step process[2] and denying Carter's claim for benefits. R. 24-33. The ALJ found that Carter suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with signs of cervical radiculopathy, mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, mild arthritis of the hips, and obesity. R. 26. He further found that Carter suffered from the severe impairments of hypertension and diabetes mellitus, both of which were largely controlled with medication and treatment. R. 26. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 27. The ALJ further found that Carter retained the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work with additional limitations. R. 28. The ALJ found Carter unable to perform jobs that required more than occasional kneeling, climbing, crouching, or stooping and that she could frequently (but not constantly) reach, handle, and finger, but was limited to seldom (less than occasional) overhead reaching bilaterally. R. 28. The RFC also stated that Carter would be able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting. R. 28.

The ALJ determined that Carter could not return to her past relevant work as a sales attendant (R. 31), but that she could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as telephone order clerk and general production worker. R. 32. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Carter was not disabled. R. 33. On July 3, 201, the Appeals Council denied Carter's request for review (R. 1-4) and this appeal followed.


Nonexertional Limitation

Carter argues that the ALJ erred by finding that she can frequently (but not constantly) reach, handle, and finger. R. 28. Carter asserts that the medical evidence instead shows that she can "at best" only occasionally reach, handle, and finger. Dkt. No. 16 at 8. For support, Carter points to her diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy, R. 423, R. 30, and the fact that she was treated for cervicalgia in July 2007. R. 295. Additionally, Carter asserts that her testimony at the hearing before the ALJ shows that she experiences numbness in her hands at least three or four times per week and that it lasts anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. R. 53. Finally, Carter posits that because the ALJ found that she is limited to the sedentary exertional level (R. 31), and because Social Security Ruling 96-9p directs that sedentary work activity requires good use of both the hands and fingers (which she alleges not to have), the ALJ should have found Carter disabled.

In July 2007-before her alleged onset date of July 2008-Carter was treated for complaints of mid back and left shoulder pain by Dr. Michael Patrick at the Roanoke Valley Medical Clinic. R. 295. Dr. Patrick found that Carter had "decreased strength in her left hand, " but full range of motion in her left arm. He noted "diminished reflex brachioradialis and biceps tendons[, ]" as well as tenderness in the trapezius, shoulder, back between the shoulder and scapula, and tenderness coming down the arm. R. 295. He diagnosed her with cervicalgia, with a suspicion of cervical neuritis, ordered an MRI, and prescribed her Lortab, Ibuprofen, and Flexeril. R. 295.

Carter saw Dr. Jasmin Jerez-Marte from March 2008 to November 2010 at the Roanoke Valley Medical Clinic. R. 270-94, 325-27, 335-54. Throughout this period, Carter was treated for non-insulin dependent diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension. R. 270-94, 325-27, 335-54. Dr. Jasmin Jerez-Marte also recommended lifestyle changes involving diet, exercise, and smoking. See R. 271, 276, 286, 290, 344.

Carter also complained of neck pain, shoulder pain, and back pain throughout her visits to the Roanoke Valley Medical Clinic. R. 270-94, 325-27, 335-54. The medical findings from those visits, however, revealed only minor limitations in functioning. In April 2008, Dr. Jerez-Marte observed a full range of motion with normal strength, motor tone, and mass in Carter's upper extremities and normal, intact touch, but decreased abduction in her right hip. R. 289. Jerez-Marte again found a full range of motion and normal strength and touch in March 2009, August 2009, January 2010, and July ...

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