United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
On September 7, 2012, Steven McDowell Lowe ("Plaintiff") applied for Social Security Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from arthritis, depression, gout, degenerative disc disease, back and shoulder problems, and a hernia, with an alleged onset date of July 10, 2012. (R. at 218, 221.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiff's claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in formulating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), in assessing Plaintiff's credibility, and in posing an incomplete hypothetical to the vocational expert ("VE"). (Pl.'s Mem. in Support of Soc. Sec. App. ("Pl.'s Mem.")(ECF No. 12) at 1.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, making the matter now ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11) be GRANTED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be DENIED, and that the final decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED and REMANDED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 7, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. (R. at 218.) The SSA denied these claims initially on March 12, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on August 14, 2013. (R. at 80-91, 93-108.) At Plaintiff's written request, the ALJ held a hearing on October 29, 2014. (R. at 30.) On December 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiff's claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because Plaintiff could successfully adjust to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 22.) On February 11, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-4.)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, the Court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination when an ALJ has applied the correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes all the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the Court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the Court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether a disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see also Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-45 (summarizing the ALJ's five step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC, accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). Then at step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform his past work given his RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
III. THE ALJ'S DECISION
On October 9, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a VE testified. (R. at 30.) On December 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 22.)
The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 9-22.) At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 7, 2012. (R. at 11.) At step two, he found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: gout, degenerative disc disease, torn rotator cuff status post-surgical repair, pulmonary embolus, depression with symptoms of anxiety/generalized anxiety disorder and morbid obesity. (R. at 22.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 12.)
In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.967(b), except that Plaintiff had the ability to frequently balance. (R. at 14.) Plaintiff could occasionally stoop, kneel, climb, crouch, crawl and perform overhead reaching with his right upper extremity. (R. at 14.) Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding. (R. at 14.) With respect to his mental RFC, Plaintiff could use commonsense understanding to perform instructions provided in oral, written or diagrammatic form, consistent with a range of unskilled work at or below reasoning level three as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). (R. at 14.) He could occasionally work with the general public, supervisors and co-workers. (R. at 14.)
At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 20.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in the national economy. (R. at 21.) Specifically, the ALJ identified the jobs of investigator of dealer accounts, laminating machine operator and conveyor line baker worker. (R. at 21.) Therefore, Plaintiff had not suffered from a disability, as defined in the Act, since the application date of September 7, 2012. (R. at 22.)
Plaintiff, fifty years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a general laborer and a maintenance employee/superintendent. (R. at 218, 227.) He applied for Social Security Benefits, alleging disability from arthritis, depression, gout, degenerative disc disease, back and shoulder problems, and a hernia, with an alleged onset date of July 10, 2012. (R. at 221.) Plaintiff's appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in failing to give Dr. Sheehan's opinion controlling weight, in assessing Plaintiff's credibility and in finding Plaintiff capable of performing existing work. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in his assignment of weight or assessment of credibility, but did err in his hypothetical to the VE.
A. Substantial Evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give Dr. Sheehan's opinions limited weight.
Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Sheehan's opinions deserve controlling weight as the treating physician, and the ALJ's failure to do so constitutes reversible error. (Pl.'s Mem. at 10.) Defendant responds that the ALJ properly weighted Dr. Sheehan's opinions and substantial evidence supports that decision. (Def.'s Motion ...