United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
JODY L. ROTHWELL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge
has filed this action challenging the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claims for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42
U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and 42 U.S.C. § 1381
et seg., respectively. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the
parties, the issues now before the court are whether the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial
evidence, or whether there is "good cause" to
necessitate remanding the case to the Commissioner for
further consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
plaintiff, Jody L. Rothwell, was born on February 10, 1969,
and eventually reached the tenth grade in school. Mr.
Rothwell has been employed as an ATM dispatcher and as a
production line worker in a furniture company. He last worked
on a regular basis in 2012. In March of 2012, plaintiff filed
applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income benefits. His claims were denied
upon initial consideration and reconsideration. He then
sought and received a de novo hearing and review before an
Administrative Law Judge. On February 19, 2014, the Law Judge
rendered an opinion denying Mr. Rothwell's entitlement to
benefits. Plaintiff then appealed to the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council. The Appeals Council
eventually adopted the Law Judge's opinion as the final
decision of the Commissioner. Upon appeal to this court, the
court affirmed the Commissioner's final decision denying
plaintiffs entitlement to disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income benefits.
October 16, 2014, while the appeal of the denial of his
earlier claims was still pending in this court, Mr. Rothwell
filed new applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income benefits. On this occasion,
plaintiff alleged that he became disabled for all forms of
substantial gainful employment on January 14, 2012 due to
uncontrolled diabetes; arthritis in his feet; sleep apnea;
pain in his feet, right elbow, and back; kidney failure;
fatigue; gout; and depression. Mr. Rothwell now maintains that
he has remained disabled to the present time. As to his
application for disability insurance benefits, the record
reveals that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of
the Act at all relevant times covered by the
Commissioner's decision. See gen., 42 U.S.C.
§§ 416 (i) and 423(a).
again, plaintiffs applications were denied upon initial
consideration and reconsideration. He then sought and
received a de novo hearing and review before an
Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated September 18,
2015, the same Administrative Law Judge again determined that
Mr. Rothwell is not disabled. The Law Judge found that
plaintiff suffers from several severe impairments, including
insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; morbid obesity;
obstructive sleep apnea; gout; osteoarthritis of both knees;
status post right foot fusion; history of acute kidney
injury; and depressive/anxiety disorders. (TR 16). Because of
these impairments, the Law Judge ruled that Mr. Rothwell is
disabled for his past relevant work roles. (TR 32). However,
the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains sufficient
functional capacity for a limited range of sedentary work
activity. The Law Judge assessed Mr. Rothwell's residual
functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). Specifically,
the claimant can lift or carry, including upward pulling, 20
pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk,
for about two hours during an eight-hour workday; and sit for
six hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can
occasionally push or pull with the bilateral lower
extremities. He can occasionally climb ramps or stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch. He can never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds, crawl, or operate foot controls. The
claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme
temperatures, and avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery
and work at unprotected heights or on vibrating surfaces.
There can be no required driving on the job. Finally, the
claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out
simple instructions in repetitive, unskilled work that
involves occasional interaction with the general public.
(TR 19). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after
considering plaintiffs age, education, and prior work
experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert,
the Law Judge found that Mr. Rothwell retains sufficient
functional capacity for several specific sedentary work roles
existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR
33-34). Specifically, the Law Judge noted potential jobs as a
small parts assembler, surveillance system monitor, and
product inspector. (TR 34). Accordingly, the Law Judge
ultimately concluded that plaintiff is not disabled, and that
he is not entitled to benefits under either federal program.
See gen., 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and
416.920(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the
final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all
available administrative remedies, Mr. Rothwell has again
appealed to this court.
plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment,
the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is
disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment.
See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2) and 1382c(a).
There are four elements of proof which must be considered in
making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as
follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings;
(2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3)
subjective evidence of physical manifestations of
impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony;
and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history,
residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch. 438 F.2d
1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v.
Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
occasion, after reviewing the medical and vocational
evidence, the court is unable to conclude that the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial
evidence. While Mr. Rothwell suffers from a variety of
medical problems, the court agrees that his most vocationally
relevant difficulties include intractable diabetes, obesity,
musculoskeletal problems including gout, and
depressive/anxiety disorder. The court believes that the
Administrative Law Judge accounted for most of these
work-related problems in her hypothetical question to the
vocational expert. Indeed, in terms of her assessment of
plaintiff s physical limitations, the court finds no fault
with the Law Judge's resolution of Mr. Rothwell's
case. The difficulty in this matter turns on the Law
Judge's treatment of plaintiff s emotional problems.
seems that in the months following the Administrative Law
Judge's decision on Mr. Rothwell's first applications
for benefits, plaintiffs physician determined that he was
suffering from anxiety and depression. The treating
physician, Dr. Elvis Pagan, produced a report indicating that
Mr. Rothwell experienced disabling, severe depression. Dr.
Pagan referred Mr.
to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Dr. Suzanne C. Jamison,
eventually diagnosed depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Dr.
Jamison prescribed medication for relief of associated
symptoms. As noted by the Administrative Law Judge, in
subsequent reports, Dr. Jamison and Dr. Pagan described
improvement in plaintiffs emotional difficulties. Based on
her reading of these reports, the Administrative Law Judge
ruled that while Mr. Rothwell experiences a severe impairment
on the basis of depressive/anxiety disorders, his emotional
problems are not as severe as to prevent performance of
simple, repetitive, unskilled work roles, involving only
occasional interaction with the public, for which he is
otherwise physically capable. (TR 19).
Judge also relied on a report from a state agency
psychological consultant in concluding that Mr. Rothwell
experiences moderate difficulties in concentration,
persistence, or pace. (TR 18, 32). In this respect, the Law
Judge concluded as follows:
In short, though the claimant's combined impairments
reasonably contribute to "moderate" difficulties in
maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, the alleged
social difficulties are "mild to moderate." The
limitation to simple, repetitive, unskilled tasks with
occasional interaction with the general public is generally
well supported by medical evidence, including clinical