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Jarvis v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

June 3, 2016

EUGENE LESTER JARVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge

         On January 17, 2012, Eugene Lester Jarvis ("Plaintiff') applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from obesity, diabetes mellitus, spinal disorder with lower back pain and depression, with an alleged onset date of April 1, 2006. Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to June 1, 2009. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs 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 assessing Plaintiffs Residual Function Capacity ("RFC"). (Pl's Br. in Supp. of Pl's Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl's Mem.") (ECF No. 12) at 2-3.) 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, rendering the matter now ripe for review.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11) be GRANTED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be DENIED, that the final decision of the Commissioner be VACATED and that this action be REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI with an alleged onset date of April 1, 2006. (R. at 19.) The SSA denied these claims initially on March 16, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on October 5, 2012. (R. at 19, 146.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on April 21, 2014. (R. at 19.) During the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to June 1, 2009. (R. at 19.) On May 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because Plaintiff could perform work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 29.) On July 1, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-5.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a 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 examines 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 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 (describing 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). 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 April 21, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 19.) On May 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 19-30.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 20-30.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") after Plaintiffs alleged onset date of June 1, 2009. (R. at 21.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, diabetes mellitus, spinal disorder with low back pain and depression. (R. at 21.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 22.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform medium work, defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) to include the ability to lift no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds. (R. at 24.) The ALJ further limited Plaintiffs physical RFC to occupations that do not require the ability to climb ladders and to those that do not require exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. (R. at 24.) Additionally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could only perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks not performed in a fast-paced production environment with only simple, work-related decisions and relatively few workplace changes. (R. at 24.)

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff incapable of performing any past relevant work. (R. at 28.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 29.) ...


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