United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seg., respectively. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues now before the court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, or whether there is "good cause" to necessitate remanding the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The plaintiff, Daphne Anne Carr, was born on April 2, 1962, and eventually completed her high school education. Ms. Carr also attended college for four years. Plaintiffs has worked as a secretary/receptionist; cashier; waitress; caretaker; and mail order clerk. Apparently, she last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2007. On November 10, 2010, Ms. Carr filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on July 1, 2007, due to severe depression disorder. Ms. Carr now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. As to her application for disability insurance benefits, the record reveals that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through the fourth quarter of 2010, but not thereafter. See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a). Consequently, Ms. Carr is entitled to disability insurance benefits only if she has established that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on or before December 31, 2010. See generally 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).
Plaintiffs claims were denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated February 14, 2013, the Law Judge also determined that Ms. Carr is not disabled. The Law Judge found that plaintiff suffers from depression with anxiety and polysubstance abuse/dependence. The Law Judge ruled that because of her intolerance for stress, Ms. Carr is unable to perform her past relevant work activities. However, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains the capacity to perform a variety of work roles at all exertional levels which do not involve exposure to stressful activities. The Law Judge assessed Ms. Carr's residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is capable of performing a low stress job, which means that she can understand, remember, and carry out only simple instructions and complete repetitive, unskilled tasks in a position that requires only occasional interaction with the public.
(TR 16-17). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering plaintiffs age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge determined that Ms. Carr retains sufficient functional capacity for a variety of work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that Ms. Carr is not disabled, and that she is not entitled to benefits under either federal program. See generally, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Ms. Carr has now appealed to this court.
While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2) and 1382c(a). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
After a review of the record in this case, the court is unable to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. As summarized above, the Administrative Law Judge found that Ms. Carr suffers from a severe emotional impairment which renders her disabled for all of her past relevant work roles. In such a case in which the claimant establishes disability for past relevant work, the well-established rule is that the burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the Commissioner to establish the availability of alternate work roles, which the claimant could be expected to perform, given her particular circumstances. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983); Taylorv. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 664, 666 (4th Cir. 1975). See also, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(2) and 416.960(c)(2). In order to discharge this burden, the Commissioner often receives testimony from a vocational expert. Grant, 699 F.2d at 192. As reflected above, in the instant case, the Administrative Law Judge relied on testimony from a vocational expert in determining that Ms. Carr could be expected to perform alternate, nonstressful work roles existing in significant number in the national economy.
The record reveals that, at the time of the administrative hearing in this case on January 15, 2013, the Law Judge posed the following hypothetical question to the vocational expert:
Assume an individual such as the claimant who is able to perform at all exertional levels, but is limited to low-stress jobs, meaning she's able to understand, remember, carry out simple instructions, and repetitive, unskilled tasks, with occasional interactions with the general public.
(TR 67). In response, and after considering plaintiffs age, education, and prior work experience, the vocational expert testified that Ms. Carr could be expected to perform unskilled production work, primarily in the light exertional category. (TR 68). When presented with an additional hypothetical, which included a consultative psychologist's finding of "moderate limitations with respect to responding appropriately to usual work situations and change in the routine work setting, " the vocational expert opined that plaintiff could be expected to perform the same unskilled production work. (TR 70-72). The Administrative Law Judge relied on the vocational expert's testimony in finding that Ms. Carr retains sufficient functional capacity to perform a variety of work roles existing in significant number in the national economy.
The difficulty in this case is that the hypothetical questions put to the vocational expert did not include all of the work-related limitations ultimately found to exist by the Administrative Law Judge in her opinion. In assessing the severity and manifestations of plaintiffs depressive disorder, the Administrative Law Judge found that "[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties." (TR 15-16). The court also notes that the state agency psychologist who reviewed plaintiffs case found that Ms. Carr experiences moderate limitations in her ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, and moderate limitations in her ability to perform work activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances. (TR 105). The Law Judge did not include such findings in her assessment of plaintiffs residual functional capacity, or in her hypothetical questions to the vocational expert. Thus, while the vocational expert proposed "production-oriented work" for Ms. Carr, the vocational expert was not asked to consider the degree to which such work roles require concentration, persistence, regular production output, and attendance to task.
In Walkerv. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit commented as follows:
The purpose of bringing in a vocational expert is to assist the ALJ in determining whether there is work available in the national economy which this particular claimant can perform. In order for a vocational expert's opinion to be relevant or helpful, it must be based upon a consideration of all other evidence in the record, and it must be in response to proper ...