United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
Virginia Hartman, Plaintiff, represented by Robert Wayne
Gillikin, II, Rutter Mills LLP.
Virginia Hartman, Plaintiff, represented by Karl Emmett
Osterhout, Osterhout Disability Law, LLC, pro hac vice.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant, represented by Laura Margaret
Harker, United States Attorney's Office.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.
February 13, 2012, Virginia Hartman ("Plaintiff) applied
for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB"), alleging disability from arthritis,
degenerative joint disease and a blood disorder, with an
alleged onset date of September 13, 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 as the final decision of the Commissioner.
now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. Â§ 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in
assigning little weight to the opinions of the consultative
examining physicians when he calculated Plaintiffs residual
functional capacity ("RFC") and in presenting
insufficient hypothetical questions to the vocational expert
("VE"), who testified at the hearing. (Mem. in
Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s
Mem.")(ECF No. 13) at 3, 6-8.) This matter now comes
before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to
28 U.S.C. Â§ 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross-motions
for summary judgment, rendering the matter now ripe for
review. 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. 16) be GRANTED and that the final decision
of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
February 13, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB
with an alleged onset date of September 13, 2009. (R. at 67.)
The SSA denied these claims initially on August 20, 2012, and
again upon reconsideration on April 26, 2013. (R. at 91-101,
103-09.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a
hearing on July 24, 2014. (R. at 23-65, 110-11.) On August
13, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying
Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not
qualify as disabled under the Social Security Act ("the
Act"), because Plaintiffs RFC did not preclude her from
performing past relevant work as an accounting clerk. (R. at
9-17.) The ALJ made an alternate finding that Plaintiff could
perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy. (R. at 9-17.) On September 15, 2015, the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review,
rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the
Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-4.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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). The court
must examine the record as a whole to determine whether
substantial evidence exists, 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).
regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency
employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. Â§
404.1520(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. Â§
404.1520(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. Â§
404.1520(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. Â§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the
claimant's RFC, which accounts for the most that the
claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations.
20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1545(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses
whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC.
20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the
ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 620, 624 (4th Cir. 1981).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
24, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff
(represented by counsel) and a VE testified. (R. at 23-66.)
On August 13, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding
that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R.
followed the five-step evaluation process established by the
Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 9-11.)
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since the
alleged onset date. (R. at 11.) At step two, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative joint
disease of the bilateral shoulders and knees and degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar spine. (R. at 11.) However, at
step three, the ALJ found that neither these impairments nor
a combination of these impairments met or medically equaled
the severity of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 11-12.)
assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1567(b) with
some limitations. (R. at 12.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff
could sit for six hours, stand for four hours and walk for
four hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 12.) Plaintiff
could occasionally reach overhead with her bilateral hands,
could constantly pull and push at the light exertional level,
could frequently operate foot controls with her right foot,
could frequently climb stairs and ramps, and could frequently
balance and stoop. (R. at 12.) Plaintiff could never climb
ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 12.) Plaintiff could
never crawl and could only occasionally kneel, crouch and be
exposed to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts.
(R. at 12.) At step four, the ALJ found that, based on
Plaintiffs RFC, she could perform past relevant work as an
accounting clerk. (R. at ...