United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division
RUTH C. MITCHELL, Plaintiff
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
Pamela Meade Sargent United States Magistrate Judge
I. Background and Standard of Review
Plaintiff, Ruth C. Mitchell, (“Mitchell”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), determining that she was not eligible for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. § 423 (West 2011). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by transfer based on consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Mitchell has requested oral argument in this matter.
The court’s review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). ‘“If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.’”” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).
The record shows that Mitchell protectively filed her application for DIB on October 14, 2011, alleging disability as of April 1, 2006, due to agoraphobia, anxiety, depression, polycythemia,  hypertension, nerves, skin rash eczema, synovial cysts on the spine and herniated discs at the L4-L5 level of the spine. (Record, (“R.”), at 183-84, 188, 192, 211, 219.) The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 91-93, 97-99, 102, 103-05, 107-09.) Mitchell then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”), (R. at 110), and a hearing was held by video conferencing on July 23, 2013, at which Mitchell was represented by counsel. (R. at 29-70.)
By decision dated August 8, 2013, the ALJ denied Mitchell’s claim. (R. at 12-24.) The ALJ found that Mitchell met the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through December 31, 2007. (R. at 14.) The ALJ also found that Mitchell had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2006, her alleged onset date. (R. at 14.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Mitchell suffered from severe impairments, namely polycythemia; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, (“COPD”); depression; and anxiety, but she found that Mitchell did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed at or medically equal to one listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 14-16.) The ALJ found that Mitchell had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work,  which did not require more than occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling, and which did not require more than occasional social interaction. (R. at 16-21.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Mitchell was able to perform her past relevant work as an accounting clerk. (R. at 21-22.) Based on Mitchell’s age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ also found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Mitchell could perform, including jobs as an assembler, a packer and an inspector. (R. at 22-23.) Thus, the ALJ found that Mitchell was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not eligible for DIB benefits through her date last insured. (R. at 23.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f), (g) (2015).
After the ALJ issued her decision, Mitchell pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 7), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Mitchell then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (2015). The case is before this court on Mitchell’s motion for summary judgment filed June 15, 2015, and the Commissioner’s motion for summary
Mitchell was born in 1955, (R. at 183), which, at the time of the ALJ’s decision, classified her as a “person of advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e). She has a high school education and two years of college instruction. (R. at 193.) Mitchell has past relevant work experience as an office manager in a dentist’s office and as a dental hygienist. (R. at 31-32, 193.)
Mitchell testified at her hearing that she last worked as dental receptionist/office manager/bookkeeper in April 2002. (R. at 44-45.) However, she stated that she left that job due to her nerves and increasing difficulty being around people and dealing with the public. (R. at 38, 45.) Mitchell stated that her “nerves” were treated by her primary care physician. (R. at 38.) She stated that she was agoraphobic, sometimes requiring her to cancel medical appointments because she could not go out. (R. at 33-34.) She stated that the only place she felt safe was at home. (R. at 35.) Mitchell testified that in 2006 and 2007, she simply “stopped socially.” (R. at 41.) She stated that she did not want company unless announced, and she did not enjoy people anymore. (R. at 41.) Mitchell testified that she did not leave the house to grocery shop and had not been to Walmart “in years.” (R. at 41.) She stated that she last time she had been shopping was “probably three years ago.” (R. at 41.) Mitchell testified that she might go into the Dollar Store if she was going to the doctor and was able to do so. (R. at 41.) She stated that her neighbor cut her hair, she did not attend church, and she did not go out to dinner. (R. at 41-42.) Mitchell estimated that she had not eaten out since 2003. (R. at 42.) She testified that she did not drive, and was not doing so in 2006 or 2007, due to her back problems and panic attacks, unless her husband was unavailable, in which case she only to drove to and from medical appointments. (R. at 43-44.)
Mitchell testified that she began having back pain in 2006, resulting in difficulty getting up and down by herself, difficulty standing and limited physical activity. (R. at 47-48.) She stated that she had seen an orthopedic doctor for her back and had taken Lortab for back pain for the previous five or six years. (R. at 38-39.) She stated that Lortab alleviated some of her pain, and she admitted that her pain was worse when she did not take it. (R. at 40.) Although Mitchell testified that her conditions worsened in January 2012, she stated that she refused to see a neurosurgeon, contrary to her physician’s advice in January 2013, because she “[does not] travel” due to her back and her nerves. (R. at 34-35, 38.) Mitchell did treat with Blue Ridge Neuroscience Center, P.C., in April 2011, but did not follow through with the recommendation for physical therapy. (R. at 39.) She testified that she did not file for disability until October 2011, despite an alleged onset date of April 1, 2006, because she thought she could “overcome” it, and she was embarrassed and did not want to “give in to it.” (R. at 34.)
Mitchell stated that her husband did the laundry and cooked. (R. at 48.) She stated that she could make crockpot meals, but had to sit down for at least 20 minutes due to lower back pain. (R. at 48-49.) She also testified that she had to lie down throughout the day and sit in a recliner with her feet up. (R. at 49.) Mitchell testified that her husband did the grocery shopping in December 2007. (R. at 51.) She described a typical day in December 2007 to include simply staying home. (R. at 51.) She stated that she had to move from one point to another just to get comfortable. (R. at 52.) Mitchell testified that, in December 2007, she went to bed around 10:30 p.m. and would sleep for six or seven hours on Flexeril. (R. at 52.) After getting up, she would make a cup of coffee and proceed to alternate from spending time in a recliner and lying back down. (R. at 53.) She stated that she did not eat breakfast or lunch, and she would have dinner with her husband around 5:00 p.m. (R. at 53-54.) Mitchell testified that she would continue alternating positions after dinner. (R. at 54.) She stated that she would plant flowers when she could, but her husband brought her the dirt. (R. at 51.) She further testified that she had not taken a vacation since 2003. (R. at 52.)
John Newman, a vocational expert, also was present and testified at Mitchell’s hearing. (R. at 55-68.) Newman characterized Mitchell’s past work as a dental receptionist as sedentary and semi-skilled, as a bookkeeper as sedentary and skilled and as a dental assistant as light and skilled. (R. at 55-56.) As an aggregate assessment, Newman characterized Mitchell’s work as a dental assistant at the dentist’s office as light and skilled. (R. at 56.) When asked to consider a hypothetical individual who could perform light work that required no more than occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, scaffolds and ropes and no more than occasional crouching and crawling, Newman testified that such an individual could perform Mitchell’s past work as a dental assistant. (R. at 57-58.) Newman further testified that such an individual could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including those of a receptionist, a telephone order clerk and an accounting clerk, all classified as sedentary. (R. at 58-59.) Newman also testified that such an individual could perform the jobs of a cashier, an amusement or recreational attendant and a counter clerk, all at the light level of exertion. (R. at 61.) Newman testified that all of the jobs listed, except for the accounting clerk job, required dealing with the public. (R. at 64-65.) He stated that, if a hypothetical individual was unable to deal with the public due to fear, anxiety and panic, requiring a retreat from the environment, she would not be able to perform those jobs. (R. at 65.) Newman testified that the accounting clerk job probably would require an individual to sit for a minimum of six hours in an eight-hour day, and if a hypothetical individual was not able to do so due to back pain or was required to shift and change positions throughout the day for at least 15 to 20 minutes at a time, the individual would not be able to perform that job or any other sedentary job. (R. at 65-66.) Newman further testified that if a hypothetical individual had to sit in a position to recline or prop up her feet at least waist-high or higher, such individual could not perform those sedentary jobs or any other jobs. (R. at 66.) Newman was next asked to consider a hypothetical individual with no exertional limitations, but who could have no more than occasional social interaction. (R. at 67.) He testified that such an individual could not perform Mitchell’s past work, but could perform the job of the accounting clerk, as well as the jobs of an assembler, a laundry folder and an inspector/tester/sorter, at the light level of exertion. (R. at 67.) Lastly, when asked to consider a hypothetical individual who could perform light work that required no more than occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ropes, ladders and scaffolds, no more than occasional crouching and crawling and which required no more than occasional social interaction, Newman testified that such an individual could perform the jobs just listed. (R. at 68.)
In rendering her decision, the ALJ reviewed medical records from Wellmont Lonesome Pine Hospital; Dr. Joseph Duckwall, M.D., a state agency physician; Julie Jennings, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; James Wickham, a state agency consultant; Richard Luck, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Dr. Lawrence J. Fleenor, M.D.; Solstas Lab Partners; Blue Ridge Neuroscience Center, ...