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Baker v. Colvin

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

June 7, 2016

TONJIA DEAVER BAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge

         On March 31, 2012, Tonjia Deaver Baker ("Plaintiff) applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from carpal tunnel syndrome in her legs, arthritis in her left knee and ankle, back problems, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and manic depression, with an alleged onset date of January 6, 2012. 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 functional capacity ("RFC"). (Mem. in Supp. of PL's Mot. For Summ. J. ("PL's Mem.") (ECF No. 13) at 13.) 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. 12) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 5, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI with an alleged onset date of January 6, 2012. (R. at 176.) The SSA denied these claims initially on July 10, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on January 15, 2013. (R. at 105, 119.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on May 14, 2014. (R. at 40.) On June 27, 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 existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 19-33.) On August 21, 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 l.)

         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 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, 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)(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). 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 May 14, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 38-74.) On June 27, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 19-33.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Social Security Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 19-33). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since Plaintiffs alleged onset date. (R. at 21.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the left knee, reflex sympathetic dystrophy of the left lower extremity, chronic pain syndrome, obesity and bipolar disorder. (R. at 21-22.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not suffer from an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 22-25.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) except that she required use of a cane to ambulate and must alternate between sitting and standing in place every half hour. (R. at 25.) Plaintiff could climb ramps and stairs occasionally, but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 25.) Plaintiff could only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. (R. at 25.) She could perform unskilled work, or work with a specific vocational preparation of no more than two, in a non-production oriented work setting with no interaction with the public and occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. (R. at 25.)

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 31.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 31-32.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 32.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, forty-seven years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a caregiver and corrections officer. (R. at 176, 196.) She applied for Social Security Benefits, alleging disability from carpal tunnel syndrome in her legs, arthritis in her left knee and ankle, back problems, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and manic depression, with an alleged onset date of January 6, 2012. (R. at 176, 195.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ ...


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