United States District Court, E.D. Virginia
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
On July 6, 2010, Helen Eastwood ("Plaintiff") applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from cerebral vascular disease, hypothyroidism, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, chronic kidney disease, calculus of gallbladder, non-alcoholic liver disease, panic attacks/stress and migraines, with an alleged onset date of September 25, 2008. 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 by failing to: include all of Plaintiff's psychological limitations in his residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment; find that Plaintiff meets Listing 12.05C of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and, properly assess Plaintiff's credibility. (Mem. in of Point and Authorities in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem")(ECF No. 15) at 25-34.) 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. For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be DENIED, that Plaintiff's Motion for Remand (ECF No. 14) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On July 6, 2010, Plaintiff applied for SSI, with an alleged onset date of September 25, 2008. (R. at 154-58, 171.) The SSA denied these claims initially on May 17, 2011, and upon reconsideration on December 15, 2011. (R. at 68-84.) At Plaintiff's written request, the ALJ held a hearing on June 26, 2013. (R. at 31.) On July 26, 2013, 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 perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 21-22.) On February 3, 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.)
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 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 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. Barhart, 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 SSA regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (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). At step three, the ALJ determines 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 residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her 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 June 26, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and an impartial vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 31-67.) On July 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 11-22.)
The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiff's disability claim. (R. at 11-13). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 6, 2010. (R. at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of seizures, headaches, hernia repair, coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, hypothyroidism, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, depression and anxiety. (R. at 13.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 13.)
In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could lift, carry, push and pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could stand and/or walk four hours in an eight-hour workday and sit six or more hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could occasionally climb, but not ladders, ropes and scaffolds. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could not tolerate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving machinery. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could use commonsense understanding to perform instructions provided in oral, written or diagrammatic form, consistent with a range of unskilled work at reasonable level three as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could perform low stress jobs - defined as jobs not performed at an assembly-line pace, with few workplace changes, little independent decision-making and no responsibility for the safety of others. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff could work with the general public and co-workers occasionally and superficially. (R. at 16.)
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past work. (R. at 21.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy - as a document preparer with 410, 000 positions nationally, as a touchup screener and as an addresser with 60, 000 positions nationally. (R. at ...