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Shiplett v. Colvin

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

September 12, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Brian K. Shiplett asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-1383f. On appeal, Shiplett argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in weighing his credibility and evaluating the effects of his impairments on his ability to work. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). ECF No. 6. Having considered the administrative record, the parties' briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner's final decision that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it may not "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment" for that of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, the Court asks only whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011).

         "Substantial evidence" means "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 mere scintilla" of evidence, id., but not necessarily "a large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account the entire record, and not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984); Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487-89 (1951). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ's factual findings if "conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). However, "[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law." Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         A person is "disabled" if he or she is unable to engage in "any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Social Security ALJs follow a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the applicant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past relevant work based on his or her residual functional capacity; and, if not (5) whether he or she can perform other work. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. At step five, the burden shifts to the agency to prove that the applicant is not disabled. See id.

         II. Procedural History

         Shiplett filed for DIB and SSI on January 9, 2012. See Administrative Record ("R.") 86, ECF No. 10. He was 48 years old at the time he filed his claim, R. 86, and had worked as a construction laborer, R. 61. Shiplett alleged that he had been disabled since October 15, 2010, because of problems with his left ankle, left shoulder, right shoulder, and feet; high blood pressure; and high cholesterol. R. 86, 185, 189. Disability Determination Services ("DDS"), the state agency, denied his claim initially and on reconsideration. R. 104, 111. Shiplett appeared with counsel before ALJ R. Neely Owen for an administrative hearing on January 30, 2014. R. 55-85. Shiplett testified about his medical conditions and the limitations those conditions caused in his daily life activities. R. 64-72. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified about Shiplett's work experience and his ability to return to his past work or to perform other available work. R. 73-84.

         The ALJ denied Shiplett's applications in a written decision dated February 27, 2014. R. 38-50. He found that Shiplett had severe impairments of osteoarthrosis and allied disorder and dysfunction-major joints. R. 43. These impairments, however, did not meet or equal a listing. R. 43-44. The ALJ next determined that Shiplett had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[1] to perform "light work."[2] R. 44. He limited Shiplett to walking or standing for four hours and sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday, imposed a number of postural limitations, restricted Shiplett to frequently reaching overhead with his right arm, and precluded him from concentrated exposure to workplace hazards such as dangerous machinery or heights. Id. Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Shiplett could not perform any of his past relevant work, but could perform other available jobs, including convenience store clerk, gate guard, and mail routing clerk. R. 49. The Appeals Council declined to review that decision, R. 1-4, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Shiplett argues that the ALJ erred in not fully crediting his descriptions of the limiting effects of his symptoms. PI. Br. 5-9, ECF No. 2. Because I find that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's determinations, I must disagree with Shiplett's arguments.

         A. Relevant Facts

         Shiplett primarily alleges disability caused by chronic pain in his right shoulder, as well as ankle pain and muscle spasms resulting from past injuries and surgeries. R. 13-14, 62. He injured his ankle in 2001 after falling off a roof, severely fracturing his distal tibia and fibula, and he underwent four different surgeries. R. 278. Pain in his right shoulder was first noted prior to surgery for subacromial decompression, debridement of calcific tendinitis, and partial thickness rotator cuff tear in 2004. R. 343. In May 2008, Shiplett suffered an acromioclavicular ("AC") joint separation to his left shoulder in a motorcycle accident. R. 344. Kenneth A. Boatright, M.D., discussed treatment options, including reconstructive surgery, with Shiplett. Id. Shiplett opted to pursue conservative measures of using a sling and taking medications while he continued to work construction at reduced lifting levels. Id. His shoulder pain persisted, and in July 2008, Dr. Boatright advised Shiplett to avoid work to allow his shoulder to heal. R. 344-45. Later that month Jack F. Otteni, M.D., discussed AC joint reconstructive surgery with Shiplett and scheduled him for surgery. R. 346. In August, Shiplett took time off from work. R. 347. Dr. Otteni examined his left shoulder and found that he had full range of motion, intact strength, and normal neurologic and vascular signs, although his AC joint had significant deformity. Id. Dr. Otteni encouraged Shiplett to remain off work for two weeks, and he opined that he likely would not require surgery in the future. Id.

         On March 17, 2010, Shiplett reported pain in his right shoulder after experiencing syncope and falling on it. R. 299. An X-ray of his right shoulder revealed no fracture, dislocation, or other acute bony or soft tissue abnormality. R. 317. An X-ray of his left ankle on March 31, 2010, ...

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