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Crumbley v. Colvin

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

June 7, 2016

LEE O. CRUMBLEY, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Lee O. Crumbley, Plaintiff, represented by John Osborne Goss, Goss, Meier & Fentress & Howard David Olinsky, Olinsky Law Group, pro hac vice.

          Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant, represented by Elizabeth Catherine Wu, U.S. Attorney Office.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.

         On November 10, 2011, Lee O. Crumbley, Jr. ("Plaintiff) applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from two knee reconstruction surgeries, tears of the ACL and shoulder injuries, with an alleged onset date of November 1, 1998. 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") and in posing an incomplete hypothetical to the Vocational Expert ("VE"). (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.")(ECF No. 11) at 6-10.) 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. 10) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 10, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI with an alleged onset date of November 1, 1998. (R. at 181-89.) The SSA denied these claims initially on December 12, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on April 19, 2012. (R. at 97-101, 105-07.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on January 7, 2014. (R. at 24-78.) On February 18, 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 the national economy. (R. at 13-23.) On May 28, 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 1-4.)

         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. Bamhart, 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)(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 residual functional capacity ("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 January 7, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a VE testified. (R. at 24-78.) On February 18, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 13-23.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 16-18.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since Plaintiffs alleged onset date. (R. at 18.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered the severe impairments of arthritis/ACL tears of the left knee with multiple surgeries, and arthritis in both shoulders requiring surgery. (R. at 18.) 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 18.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), subject to certain limitations. (R. at 19.) Plaintiff should avoid heights, steps and dangerous or moving machinery, and should have minimal exposure to temperature extremes. (R. at 19.) Plaintiff could only occasionally stoop, squat, kneel, crouch and crawl, and could never reach overhead with his left upper extremity. (R. at 19.) Plaintiffs reaching, fingering and handling could be frequent at times, but not repetitive, with left hand assist at ...


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