United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge
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.
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).
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).
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.
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,  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.
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” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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