United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Charlottesville Division
Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge
Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq, . Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues before this court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is not, whether plaintiff has met the burden of proof as prescribed by and pursuant to the Act. Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
The plaintiff, Norman Grooms, was born on June 10, 1955 and eventually completed his high school education. He also completed a two year course at a business college, and earned a degree. (TR 56). Mr. Grooms worked as a landscaper in 2008, between two different periods of incarceration. On April 19, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits. He alleged that he became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on May 18, 2010, due to sciatic nerve problems, Hepatitis C, arthritis, and hemorrhoids. Mr. Grooms now maintains that he has remained disabled to the present time.
Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income benefits was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. Mr. Grooms then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated January 9, 2014, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff is not disabled. The Law Judge found that Mr. Grooms suffers from degenerative disc disease, Hepatitis C, arthritis, and right ankle osteophytes. (TR 29). Despite such problems, the Law Judge determined that plaintiff retains the capacity to perform a medium range of exertional activity, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c). In assessing plaintiffs residual functional capacity, the Law Judge found that Mr. Grooms can engage in medium work involving frequent climbing ramps/stairs; occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, or climbing; and no involvement in food preparation or service. (TR 30). The Law Judge ruled that plaintiff is disabled for his past relevant work as a landscaper, which involved heavy exertional activity. (TR 34). However, given plaintiffs residual functional capacity, and after considering Mr. Grooms' age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge found that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity to engage in a variety of work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that plaintiff is not disabled, and that he is not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 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, Mr. Grooms has now appealed to this court.
While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 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. 43 8 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff. 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
At the outset, it should be noted that the Law Judge's disposition of plaintiff s claim turned in large measure on application of the Medical/Vocational Guidelines promulgated under Appendix 2 to Subpart P of the Administrative Regulations Part 404. The Law Judge found that Mr. Grooms' case is governed by Medical/Vocational Rule 203.14, which assumes that a claimant is of advanced age, possesses more than a high school education, and is vocationally unskilled. Considering such age, education, and lack of work skills, and assuming a residual functional capacity for medium exertion, Rule 203.14 directs a determination of not disabled. However, given the same age, education, and work skills, and assuming a residual functional capacity for no more than light exertional activity, Rule 202.04 directs a determination of disabled. In short, if plaintiff has met the burden in establishing that he is limited to no more than light exertional activity, the Medical/Vocational Guidelines direct a determination of disabled.
In finding that Mr. Grooms is capable of performing medium levels of exertion, the Administrative Law Judge relied on the reports of nonexamining state agency physicians, upon whose opinions the Law Judge accorded "the greatest weight." (TR 33). The Law Judge accorded lesser weight to the report and assessment of Dr. Victoria Grady, who performed a consultative physical examination at the behest of the state agency, and to the report and assessment of Dr. Lukasz Myc, who treated plaintiff at the University of Virginia Medical Center. The court is simply unable to conclude that the Law Judge's treatment of the medical record is supported by substantial evidence.
As part of the initial state agency review of plaintiff s claim for benefits, Dr. Bert Spetzler assessed all the available evidence as of September 13, 2011. Dr. Spetzler summarized the medical evidence as follows:
Exertional limitations due to degenerative disc disease at C6-7 and complaints of lower back pain. Lumbar spine noted to have full range of motion, normal gait, normal hip exam. Right SI joint noted to have tenderness on palpation. No LE weakness or atrophy noted. Claimant also has a history of Hepatitis C antibody with no complications or complaints.
(TR 93). Dr. Spetzler opined that Mr. Grooms can engage in medium levels of work activity. (TR 93). On March 22, 2012, another nonexamining state physician, Dr. Josephine Cader, reviewed the available medical record as part of the reconsideration of plaintiff s claim for benefits. (TR 107-08). As part of the reconsideration process, it was determined to commission a consultative examination. (TR 103). Thus, Dr. Cader received and considered Dr. Victoria Grady's consultative examination report as part of her reconsideration review. After considering all the evidence then available, Dr. Cader opined that plaintiff suffers from degenerative disc, Hepatitis C, and osteophytes of the right ankle. (TR 108). Dr. Cader also opined that Mr. Grooms can perform medium levels of work activity involving no more than occasional climbing, stooping, kneeling, and crawling. (TR 107-08).
Dr. Victoria Grady completed her consultative report on March 8, 2012. Unlike Dr. Spetzler and Dr. Cader, Dr. Grady actually examined Mr. Grooms. Dr. Grady also reviewed all of the available medical evidence, much of which was compiled during plaintiff s incarceration. Based on her physical examination and review of the medical record, Dr. Grady offered the following functional assessment:
The number of hours the claimant can stand in an eight-hour workday, based on today's exam, is expected to be six. The number of hours the claimant can walk in an eight-hour workday, based on today's exam, is expected to be six. The number of hours the claimant can sit in an eight-hour workday, based on today's exam, is expected to be six.
The amount of weight the claimant can carry, based on today's exam, is expected to be 20 pounds occasionally. The amount of weight the claimant can lift, based on today's exam, is expected to be 20 pounds occasionally.
Manipulative limitations: Based on today's exam, the claimant should be able to reach, handle, feel, ...