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Friday v. Colvin

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

June 7, 2016

BETTY LEAVERN FRIDAY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge

         On October 12, 2011, Betty Leavem Friday ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and, on October 14, 2011, for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from colon obstruction, intestine removal, spleen and back pain, with an alleged onset date of June 10, 2011. 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 failed to properly assess Plaintiffs credibility and residual fimctional capacity ("RFC"). (Mem. in Supp. of PL's Mot. for Summ. J. ("PL's Mem.")(ECF No. 10) at 45-49.) 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 Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 12, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and, then, on October 14, 2011, filed an application for SSI, with an alleged onset date of June 10, 2011. (R. at 67, 74.) The SSA denied these claims initially on November 18, 2011, and upon reconsideration on January 5, 2012. (R. at 73, 80, 90, 98.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on February 20, 2014. (R. at 37.) On February 25, 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 past relevant work as a sewing machine operator and as an order picker. (R. at 21.) On June 10, 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.)

         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. Cohin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm 'r ofSoc. 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. 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 Social Security Administration 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, during step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). During 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)(H). 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 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). During 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 February 20, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert testified. (R. at 37-66.) On February 25, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 22.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 19-22.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 10, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. at 19.) Although Plaintiff worked after the alleged disability onset date, her work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (R. at 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of abdominal pain as a residual effect of stomach surgery. (R. at 19.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 20.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could sit, stand and walk without limitation during an eight-hour workday. (R. at 20.) Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could occasionally lift or carry objects weighing twenty pounds and could frequently lift or carry objects weighting ten pounds. (R. at 20.) Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance and stoop. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff had no limitations in her ability to kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 20.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a sewing machine operator and as an order picker, because these jobs do not require the performance of activities precluded by Plaintiffs RFC. (R. at 21.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 22.) Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work, he did not proceed to step five.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, sixty-three years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a cafeteria counter worker, a kitchen helper, a sewing machine operator and an order filler. (R. at 22.) She applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability from colon obstruction, intestine removal and spleen and back pain, with an alleged onset date of June 10, 2011. (R. at 67, 74.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to follow prescribed procedures in determining Plaintiffs credibility and RFC. (PL's Mem. at 8-13.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in his decision.

         A. The ALJ properly assessed Plaintiffs credibility as required by the SSA ...


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