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Rothwell v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 1, 2016

JODY L. ROTHWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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).

         The 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.

         On 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.[1] 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).

         Once 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.

         While 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).

         On this 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.

         It 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.

         Rothwell 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).

         The Law 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 findings ...

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