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Garris v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 1, 2016

JONATHAN C. GARRIS Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Theresa Carroll Buchanan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Jonathan C. Garris (“plaintiff” or “claimant”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“defendant”) denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment with briefs in support, which are now ripe for resolution. (Dkts. 10, 12-1, 16, 17.) On May 26, 2016, United States District Judge Liam O'Grady referred this matter, with the consent of both parties, to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. 15.) For the following reasons, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 10) shall be DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 16) shall be GRANTED.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his application for disability insurance benefits on November 15, 2010, alleging disability as of July 24, 1998. (Administrative Record[1] (“R.”) 11, 155-58.) Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on April 14, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on November 27, 2012. (Id. at 11, 75-101, 105-07.) On January 22, 2013, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 11, 108, 111-16.)

         ALJ Michael A. Krasnow held a hearing on March 21, 2014, during which he received testimony from plaintiff, represented by counsel, and James Ryan, an impartial vocational expert. (Id. at 11, 27-74.) On May 13, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2003, the last date plaintiff was insured. (Id. at 11-22.) The Appeals Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (“Appeals Council”) denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on August 14, 2015. (Id. at 1-3.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, plaintiff filed a Complaint for judicial review on October 15, 2015. (Dkt. 1.) Defendant answered on December 15, 2015. (Dkt. 4.) The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment (Dkts. 10 and 16), and the matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Social Security Act, the Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standard was applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. While the standard is high, where the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence on the record, or where the ALJ has made an error of law, the district court must reverse the decision. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Stroup v. Apfel, No. 96-1722, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 2750, at *12-13 (4th Cir. Feb. 24, 2000).

         In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court must examine the record as a whole, but it may not “undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). The correct law to be applied includes the Act, its implementing regulations, and controlling case law. See Coffman, 829 F.2d at 517-18. With this standard in mind, the Court next evaluates the ALJ's findings and decision.

         III. ALJ's FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         The ALJ is required to employ a five-step sequential evaluation in every Social Security disability claim analysis to determine the claimant's eligibility. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. As noted above, the Court examines this five-step process on appeal to determine whether the correct legal standards were applied, and whether the resulting decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record. In accordance with the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ in this case made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         First, plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of July 24, 1998, through his date last insured (“DLI”) of December 31, 2003. (R. 13.) Second, through the DLI, plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with lumbar radiculopathy, status-post laminectomy and obesity. (Id.) Third, 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, through his DLI. (Id. at 14.) Fourth, through his DLI, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that plaintiff could frequently climb ramps and stairs, occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and occasionally crawl, and with the additional limitation that plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, such as machinery and unprotected heights and parts. (Id. at 14-15.) As such, plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 20-21.) Fifth, considering plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed through the DLI. (Id. at 21.) Therefore, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from July 24, 1998, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2003, the date plaintiff was last insured. (Id. at 22.)

         IV. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was 48 years old on December 31, 2003, his DLI. (R. 34-35.) Plaintiff has a high school education and worked for 20 years as a truck driver, loading, unloading, and driving 18-wheel tractor-trailers. (Id. at 38-42.) Plaintiff alleged disability since July 24, 1998, due to chronic pain, back problems, side effects from stroke, and diabetes. (Id. at 75.)

         A. Testimony at the Hearing before the ALJ

         At the hearing before the ALJ on March 21, 2014, plaintiff testified that he fell down some steps at a Home Depot on July 24, 1998 while on the job, injuring his back. (R. 43-45.) As a result, plaintiff underwent back surgery in December 1998. (Id. at 44, 63.) Plaintiff stated that he then began taking medication for his pain and psychological issues, including Trazodone, Flexeril, and Oxycontin. (Id. at 48-51.) He also underwent physical therapy sessions three or four times, and he received approximately ten pain injections. (Id. at 52.) Plaintiff further testified that, up through 2003, he was able to walk with a cane for 20 to 25 feet, he could stand for about a half an hour, he could sit for ten to 15 minutes, and he could lift 15 to 20 pounds. (Id. at 53-55.) Plaintiff also stated that he could climb stairs, drive his automatic transmission car, go to the store, dress himself, do some laundry, cast a rod when he went fishing once a year, occasionally do his back extension exercises, and sit in the car for an hour and 45 minutes when his wife drove them to the beach house. (Id. at 37, 39, 53, 58-62.) However, plaintiff added that he had to sit and required assistance to shower, he could no longer stand enough to cook, he did not do any household cleaning or yardwork, he could not walk outside sufficiently to do cardio exercise, and generally he would stay laid up in his house, with his leg propped up on a pillow 10 to 12 hours per day, watching TV. (Id. at 53-54, 57-59, 61, 65-66.) Plaintiff further testified that he was in serious pain, especially his left leg, (Id. at 47, 64-65.)

         At the administrative hearing, the vocational expert testified that an individual with plaintiff's RFC could perform light, unskilled occupations such as packaging worker, grading and sorting worker, and machine tender, as well as sedentary, unskilled occupations such as security worker, quality control worker, and order clerk. (R. 69-70.) The vocational expert further testified that all six of the above positions would permit a person to sit/stand at will and use a cane to ambulate. (Id. at 70-71.) The vocational expert also acknowledged that, if it were necessary for an individual to ...


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