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Reece v. Colvin

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

January 25, 2016

DALE ALTIZER REECE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Dale Altizer Reece ("Reece") filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Specifically, Reece alleges that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") rejection of certain opinions of Dr. Edwin Cruz was without substantial support and that the ALJ erred by failing to include limitations relating to all of Reece's severe impairments in her questions to the vocational expert ("VE") at the hearing.

This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before me by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties have fully briefed all issues and the case is now ripe for decision. I have carefully reviewed the administrative record, the legal memoranda, and the applicable law. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to reject parts of Dr. Cruz's opinion and that there was no error in the ALJ's questions to the VE. As such, I RECOMMEND DENYING Reece's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 13), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 15.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code authorizes judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). This court limits its review to determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Reece failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act. "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). If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

Reece bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)). The Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability under the Act requires showing more than the fact that the claimant suffers from an impairment which affects her ability to perform daily activities or certain forms of work. Rather, a claimant must show that her impairments prevent her from engaging in all forms of substantial gainful employment given her age, education, and work experience. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2).

The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate a disability claim. Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). The Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether she can perform other work. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520); Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983). The inquiry ceases if the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled at any step of the process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four to establish a prima facie case for disability. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the claimant maintains the Residual Functioning Capacity ("RFC"), considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and impairments, to perform available alternative work in the local and national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Taylor v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 664, 666 (4th Cir. 1975).

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Social and Vocational History

Reece was born in 1953 (Administrative Record, hereinafter "R." at 40), and is considered a person of advanced age under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1463(e). Reece is insured for benefits through December 31, 2015 (R. 19); therefore she must show that her disability began before the end of her insurance period, and existed for twelve continuous months to receive DIB. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a). Reece graduated high school and attended some community college classes but did not complete a degree. R. 40. She worked for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") for 34 years. Id . Reece spent the last ten years of her career working as a manager at the Pulaski, Virginia DMV office until her retirement in June 2010. R. 38-40. Reece reported that during the relevant period, she had the capacity to stand for approximately two hours and sit for approximately two hours at her job. R. 41. Reece also reported that she had to lift office supplies weighing approximately ten pounds, and that she occasionally had to lift boxes of license plates weighing approximately twenty-five pounds. Id . Reece also helped the public and frequently took over the customer service window position when other employees were unavailable. R. 42.

Claim History

Reece filed for DIB on March 28, 2011, claiming that her disability began on May 21, 2010. R. 64-65. The state agency denied her application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 63-73; 74-86. On May 1, 2013, ALJ Anne Sprague held a hearing to consider Reece's disability claim. R. 35-62. Reece was represented by an attorney, Gary Hancock, at the hearing, which included testimony from Reece and vocational expert John Newman. R. 35.

On October 18, 2013, the ALJ entered her decision denying Reece's claims. R. 16-29. The ALJ found that Reece suffered from the severe impairments of asthma, cancer in remission, status-post lumpectomy and node dissection, carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post release in November 2010, plantar fasciitis, and problems with a rash. R. 21. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 22. The ALJ further found that Reece retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, with occasional overhead reaching with her right arm, occasional pushing and pulling with her right arm, and occasional operation of left foot controls. R. 22. The ALJ also found that Reece should avoid concentrated exposure to humidity, vibration, machinery, and heights, and that Reece should limit her exposure to dust, odors, and fumes. Id . The ALJ determined that Reece could return to her past relevant work as a DMV manager, which was equivalent to a retail manager in the DOT. R. 28. Additionally, ...


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