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Wheeler v. Colvin

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

March 7, 2016

KIMBERLY D. WHEELER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Robert S. Ballou United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Kimberly D. Wheeler (“Wheeler”) 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”).[1] 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Wheeler alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to: (1) give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician; (2) consider certain treatment records submitted to the ALJ prior to the hearing; and (3) give proper weight to a previous ALJ decision denying benefits. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I DENY Wheeler’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14), and GRANT the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner’s conclusion that Wheeler failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[2] Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). “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 and alterations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

CLAIM HISTORY

Wheeler protectively filed for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and DIB on June 14, 2011, claiming that her disability began on May 27, 2011, due to degenerative disc disease, bulging discs, hearing loss, and bipolar disorder.[3] R. 207-17, 235, 238-239. Wheeler’s date last insured was June 30, 2011. R. 235. Thus, she must show that her disability began on or before June 30, 2011 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). The state agency denied Wheeler’s application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 115-124, 137-139. On July 22, 2013, ALJ Mary C. Peltzer held a hearing to consider Wheeler’s claim for DIB.[4] R. 37-78. Counsel represented Wheeler at the hearing, which included testimony from vocational expert Andrew Biel.

On August 19, 2013, the ALJ entered her decision analyzing Wheeler’s claim under the familiar five-step process[5] and denying her claim for benefits. R. 17-29. The ALJ noted that Wheeler had filed a previous application for SSI and DIB benefits that was denied by ALJ Brian P. Kilbane on May 26, 2011. R. 17. Wheeler’s current application for DIB benefits alleged disability beginning on May 27, 2011; however, Wheeler requested to amend her alleged onset date to July 1, 2008, the same onset date alleged in her prior application for benefits. Wheeler also requested to reopen both the SSI and DIB applications for benefits, arguing that new and material evidence existed to establish disability as of July 1, 2008. The ALJ determined that Wheeler had “not furnished new and material evidence, as it relates to her condition from July 1, 2008 through May 26, 2011, to justify reopening” the May 26, 2011 ruling and denied her request to reopen her prior applications. R. 18.

The ALJ found that Wheeler was insured at the time of the alleged disability onset and that she suffered from the severe impairments of post-operative degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine, and hearing loss. R. 20. The ALJ determined that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 22. The ALJ concluded that Wheeler retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work. Specifically, the ALJ found that Wheeler was capable of lifting 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. However, she was limited to only occasional pushing and pulling with the bilateral lower extremities, occasional climbing stairs and ramps, and could not kneel, crouch, crawl, be exposed to unprotected heights or use ladders or scaffolds. R. 22. Wheeler could perform frequent balancing, but only occasional stooping, and could have no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, humidity, and workplace hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery. Id. The ALJ also limited Wheeler to unskilled work with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of 1 or 2, in a moderate noise environment.[6] Id.

The ALJ determined that Wheeler was unable to return to any of her past relevant work, but that she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as cafeteria attendant, laundry sorter/separator, and checker. R. 27-28. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Wheeler was not disabled. R. 28. Wheeler appealed the ALJ’s decision and the Appeals Council denied Wheeler’s request for review on August 18, 2014. R. 1-3. This appeal followed.

ANALYSIS

Wheeler argues that the ALJ should have given greater weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Virginia A. Blanks, M.D. She also asserts that the ALJ failed to consider treatment records from Dr. Blanks that Wheeler submitted prior to the hearing. Finally, Wheeler argues that the ALJ should have given little weight to the previous ALJ’s May 26, 2011 decision denying benefits. Having reviewed the record as a whole, I find that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision denying Wheeler’s claims.

A. Treating Physician Opinion

Wheeler asserts that the ALJ should have given greater weight to the opinions of Dr. Blanks dated March 7, 2013 and July 10, 2013. Wheeler also asserts that the ALJ “failed to properly address [an opinion] from Dr. Blanks dated July 26, 2012.” Pl. Br. Summ. J. p. 14, Dkt. No. 15. Wheeler emphasizes that these opinions “reflect significant limitations and would preclude engagement in any work activity.” Id.

Dr. Blanks completed a physical RFC questionnaire on March 7, 2013, nearly two years after Wheeler’s date last insured of June 30, 2011, and determined that Wheeler was unable to lift and carry 10 pounds or more, and could only rarely carry less than 10 pounds. R. 947. Dr. Blanks further determined that Wheeler’s pain and other symptoms would constantly interfere with her attention and concentration and that Wheeler would be absent more than 4 days per month due to her impairments. R. 948.[7] On July 10, 2013, Dr. Blanks indicated that the March 7, 2013 physical RFC limitations extended back to July 10, 2009. In support, Dr. Blanks relied on an MRI dated December ...


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