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Charlton v. Colvin

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

September 20, 2016

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


          Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Anthony Nelson Charlton asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). ECF No. 13. 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.


         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 Administrative Law Judge (“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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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

         Charlton filed for SSI on December 21, 2011. See Administrative Record (“R.”) 169, ECF No. 11. At that time, he was forty-four years old, R. 171, and had worked as an auto mechanic, construction worker, and grounds keeper, R. 210-11, 219. Charlton alleged that he had been disabled since March 1, 2010, [1] because of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, hyperlipidemia, abdominal hernia, and diabetes. R. 218. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied his claim initially and on reconsideration. R. 58-69, 70-82. On February 11, 2014, the ALJ held an administrative hearing at which Charlton appeared with counsel. Charlton testified about his medical conditions and the limitations those conditions caused in his activities of daily living. A vocational expert (“VE”) testified about Charlton's work experience and his ability to return to his past work or to perform other available work. R. 31-56.

         The ALJ denied Charlton's application in a written decision dated February 28, 2014. R. 12-24. He found that Charlton had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, polycythemia vera, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, mood disorder, and history of substance abuse in remission. R. 14. These impairments, however, did not meet or equal a listing. R. 14-16. The ALJ next determined that Charlton had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light work”[2] with some postural and environmental limitations. R. 17. He also limited Charlton to performing simple, routine tasks that required sustained concentration for two hour segments and limited contact with others. Id. Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Charlton could not perform any of his past relevant work, but could perform other available jobs, including inspector/grader and cleaner. R. 24. The Appeals Council declined to review that decision, R. 1-3, and included additional evidence in the record, R. 4, 646-705. This appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Charlton argues that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence for two reasons. First, Charlton argues that the ALJ improperly discredited his report of shortness of breath based, in part, on Charlton not following his doctors' recommendations to stop smoking. Pl. Br. 4, ECF No. 18. At oral argument, Charlton's counsel conceded this argument. Her concession is plainly correct. A pulmonary function test revealed that Charlton has a mild obstructive lung defect and that his lung volumes were within normal limits. R. 516- 17. Physical exams repeatedly showed clear lungs and normal respirations. See, e.g., R. 471, 474, 495. Although Charlton reported experiencing shortness of breath, he continued to smoke cigarettes against his doctors' recommendations to quit. R. 495-96. As Charlton's counsel now concedes, the ALJ could question the severity of Charlton's report of breathing symptoms based on his failure to heed his doctors' recommendations to stop smoking. Whitt v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 1:12cv52, 2013 WL 4784991, at *57-59 (N.D. W.Va. Sept. 6, 2013); Waters v. Colvin, No. 4:12cv23, 2013 WL 2490185, at *5, n.7 (W.D. Va. June 10, 2013). Considering the mostly normal medical evidence and the adequate grounds for the ALJ's credibility determination, I find that the ALJ's assessment of Charlton's respiratory issues is supported by substantial evidence.

         In his second argument, Charlton asserts that the ALJ's RFC determination should have included a limitation in handling and manipulating objects. Pl. Br. 3. At the administrative hearing, Charlton testified that he experienced numbness, tingling, and cramping in his hands. R. 45. He further testified that his grip was pretty good, but his hands cramped when he held a screwdriver or ratchet. R. 45-46. Nonetheless, he could hold and write with a pencil and handle small items like coins, buttons, and zippers. Charlton attributes these limitations to diabetic neuropathy, peripheral polyneuropathy, Pl. Br. 3, and osteoarthritis, R. 45.

         In a function report, Charlton indicated that he could and did do house and yard work, but his depression and health took away his desire to perform these activities. R. 252-53, 301-02. He lived with his mother, and he prepared meals and shopped for groceries for them both. R. 253, 302. He could drive a car. R. 253, 304. Charlton worked on cars and did small engine repair, although he reported doing them “very little.” R. 254, 299, 303. He reported that he was limited in numerous abilities, including using his hands. R. 255, 306.

         The medical evidence relevant to Charlton's hand complaints shows that on November 6, 2013, he visited Susan Miller, M.D., for cervical and knee arthritis. R. 590. Charlton said his knee and neck pain were the worst, and he wanted to focus on them, but he also reported experiencing severe pain and cramping in his hands. Id. He reported occasional numbness in his lateral forearm and all fingers bilaterally. Id. On examination, Dr. Miller found negative Spurling, Tinel, and Hoffman tests bilaterally, normal strength, and no sensory deficit. R. 594- 95. She noted Charlton's history of poorly controlled diabetes mellitus ...

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