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Smith v. Colvin

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

March 25, 2015

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


ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Mary Jane Smith ("Smith") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible 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. Smith alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating psychologist, and by failing to properly consider the cumulative effect of her physical and mental impairments. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I hereby DENY Smith's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 13), and GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16).


This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Smith failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[2] "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). CLAIM HISTORY

Smith filed for SSI and DIB on July 14, 2010, claiming that her disability began on July 14, 2010. R. 193-206. The Commissioner denied Smith's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 81-82, 106-107. On July 3, 2012, ALJ Thomas W. Erwin held a hearing to consider Smith's claims. R. 35-60. Smith was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Smith and vocational expert James Williams. R. 35-60.

On July 17, 2012, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Smith's claim under the familiar five-step process[3] and denying her claim for benefits. R. 19-29. The ALJ found that Smith suffered from the severe impairments of depression, anxiety, panic disorder, arthralgias, back disorder and headaches. R. 21. The ALJ determined that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 22-23. The ALJ found that Smith retained the RFC to perform a range of light work, with the ability to frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance and crouch, and only occasionally stoop, kneel or crawl. R. 23. The ALJ further found that Smith should avoid all hazards, unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, excessive noise and vibrations. He determined that Smith cannot perform complex tasks or skilled work, and needs a low stress job with occasional decision making or changes in the work setting, and no more than occasional interaction with the public. R. 23. Based upon the limitations set forth in the RFC, the ALJ determined that Smith could not return to her past relevant work as a fast food worker (R. 56), but that she could work at jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as laundry folder, stock checker and marker. R. 28. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Smith was not disabled. R. 28. On August 2, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Smith's request for review (R. 1-3) and this appeal followed.


Smith generally asserts that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Smith claims that the ALJ "failed to probe the significance of [her] non-exertional impairments, " erroneously dismissed the conclusions of her treating psychologist, and failed to analyze the cumulative effect of all of Smith's medical problems. Having reviewed the record as a whole, I find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision on each ground.

Treating Psychologist Opinions

Smith was has a limited education, and previously worked as a fast food worker and motel housekeeper. R. 40-45. Smith lives by herself, does not drive, and shops occasionally. R. 44-45. Smith suffers from multiple mental impairments, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.[4] Smith alleges that these mental impairments rendered her disabled as of July 14, 2010.

On September 24, 2010, Angelia Berry, Psy.D., evaluated Smith at the request of the state agency. R. 327-30. Smith reported anxiety and depression but denied mental health treatment for the past two years. R. 328. Dr. Berry diagnosed Smith with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Dr. Berry assessed Smith's GAF[5] at 62. Dr. Berry found that Smith was capable of understanding simple and complex directions. Dr. Berry further found that Smith had a mildly impaired ability to respond appropriately to others, and a mild to moderate impairment in coping effectively with daily stressors. R. 330. Dr. Berry assessed Smith's prognosis as "fair, " with better outcomes expected with participation in mental health treatment. R. 330.

On October 26, 2010, state agency psychologist Joseph Leizer, Ph.D., reviewed the record and determined that Smith retained the mental capacity to perform all levels of work. Dr. Leizer noted that Smith has a history of anxiety and depression, without evidence of inpatient or outpatient treatment, aside from medications. He assessed Smith with mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning and concentration, persistence and pace. R. 64-65.

In November 2010, Smith began treating with Robert W. Smith, Ph.D., at the Brock Hughes Free Clinic. R. 527. At her initial visit, Smith reported increased anxiety after she stopped taking Xanax, and migraine headaches. Dr. Smith recommended treating her migraines with medication and biweekly sessions to focus on self-confidence and interpersonal relationship skills. R. 527. Smith followed up with Dr. Smith approximately once a month from November 2010 through March 2011. R. 503, 504, 505, 506, 525, 527. During those visits, Smith complained of migraine headaches, stress and anxiety. Dr. Smith noted that Smith's affect was flattened (January 25, 2011), and that she "appeared to be 30 years older than her chronological age" (March 10, 2011). On February 22, 2011, Smith reported that she dealt with stress by "exercising and getting out." R. 503. Dr. Smith recommended that Smith keep current on her medications, maintain a support system, meditate and focus on doing good for others. R. 503.

On March 22, 2011, Dr. Smith completed an assessment of Smith's ability to do work-related activities. R. 482-83. Dr. Smith checked boxes indicating that Smith had good ability to relate to co-workers and deal with the public; fair ability to follow work rules, use judgment, interact with supervisors, and function independently; and poor to no ability to deal with stress and maintain attention and concentration R. 483. He noted that Smith had significant problems with coping and inattention. R. 482. Dr. Smith also indicated that Smith had good ability to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, but no ability to understand, remember and carry out complex instructions. R. 483. Dr. Smith further found that Smith ...

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