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Hartman v. Colvin

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

August 23, 2016

VIRGINIA HARTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          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

          DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.

         On 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.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 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. § 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. 16) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On 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.)

         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). 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).

         The SSA regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 404.1545(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 620, 624 (4th Cir. 1981).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On July 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. at 9-17.)

         The ALJ 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.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 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 ...


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