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Coffey v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division

September 27, 2016

PEGGY L. COFFEY, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAMELA MEADE SARGENT MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Background and Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, Peggy L. Coffey, (“Coffey”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), denying her claims for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), widow's insurance benefits based on disability, (“DWIB”), and supplemental security income, (“SSI”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 402(e), 423 and 1381 et seq. (West 2011, West 2012 & Supp. 2016). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge upon transfer by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Neither party has requested oral argument, therefore, this case is ripe for decision.

         The court's review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). “‘If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.”'” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).

         The record shows that Coffey protectively filed her applications for DIB, DWIB and SSI on September 1, 2010, alleging disability as of May 31, 2010, due to depression and a lower lumbar injury. (Record, (“R.”), at 359-64, 371-72, 401, 442, 464.) The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 204-06, 209-11, 215-17, 220-22, 226-28, 232, 233-41.) Coffey then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”). (R. at 242.) A hearing was held on December 6, 2011, at which Coffey was represented by counsel. (R. at 47-72.)

         By decision dated January 23, 2012, the ALJ denied Coffey's claims. (R. at 180-88.) The Appeals Council granted Coffey's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further consideration of Coffey's nonexertional mental impairments and her capacity to perform her past relevant work. (R. 195-97, 300-03.) Upon remand, a supplemental hearing was held on November 26, 2013, at which Coffey was represented by counsel. (R. at 73-104.)

         By decision dated December 20, 2013, the ALJ denied Coffey's claims. (R. at 22-39.) The ALJ found that Coffey was the unmarried widow of the deceased insured worker and had attained the age of 50; thus she met the nondisability requirements for disabled widow's benefits. (R. at 25.) To qualify for DWIB, however, the ALJ found that Coffee had to show that she became disabled prior to April 30, 2011. (R. at 25.) The ALJ found that Coffey met the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through September 30, 2011.[1] (R. at 25.) He found that Coffey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2010, the alleged onset date. (R. at 25.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Coffey had severe impairments, namely sprains/strains, degenerative disc disease, anxiety and depression, but he found that Coffey did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 25-26.) The ALJ found that Coffey had the residual functional capacity to perform simple, one- to two-step, light work[2] that was not quota-based, fast-paced or production-oriented; that did not require more than frequent climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds or stooping; and that did not require more than occasional interaction with the general public. (R. at 28.) The ALJ found that Coffey was unable to perform any of her past work. (R. at 38.) Based on Coffey's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of other jobs existed in the national economy that Coffey could perform, including jobs as a cleaner, a packer and a nonpostal mail clerk. (R. at 38-39.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Coffey was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not eligible for DIB, DWIB or SSI benefits. (R. at 39.) See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g) (2015).

         After the ALJ issued his decision, Coffey pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 7-10), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Coffey then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481 (2015). This case is before this court on Coffey's motion for summary judgment filed December 3, 2015, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed March 7, 2016.

         II. Facts

         Coffey was born in 1959, (R. at 54, 79, 359, 363), which, at the time of the ALJ's decision, classified her as a “person closely approaching advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). She has a high school education and an Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice. (R. at 54, 79, 443.) Coffey has past work experience as a personal trainer, a cashier, a day manager for a retail store, a security guard and a secretary for a security company. (R. at 38, 79, 97-99, 405, 443.) Coffey testified at her hearing that the primary reason she considered herself disabled was because of the pain and the limitations associated with her back and neck. (R. at 63.)

         Gerald Wells, a vocational expert, also was present and testified at Coffey's December 6, 2011, hearing. (R. at 64-71.) Wells classified Coffey's past work as a personal care attendant[3] as medium[4] and semi-skilled; as a cashier as light and unskilled; as a day manager as light and semi-skilled; as a personal trainer[5] as medium and skilled, but, as performed, at the light level; and as a security officer as light and semi-skilled. (R. at 65-69.) Wells testified that a hypothetical individual of Coffey's age, education and work history, who could perform light work and who had no more than moderate[6] limitations in the ability to deal with changes, could perform Coffey's past work as a gym attendant, a cashier and a security guard. (R. at 69-70.) Wells next testified that a hypothetical individual, who would need to take breaks at unscheduled times for unpredicted periods throughout the day and who would have difficulties in maintaining attention, concentration, persistence and pace, could not perform Coffey's past work or any other work. (R. at 71.)

         Medical expert, Robert Muller, Ph.D., testified at Coffey's November 26, 2013, hearing. (R. at 88-96.) He stated that he had reviewed the medical record which indicated that Coffey was being treated for situational depression, but which did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (R. at 89-91.) Muller stated that Coffey was mildly restricted in her activities of daily living, had moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and had experienced no repeated episodes of decompensation. (R. at 91.) He stated that Coffey would be capable of performing unskilled work in a low-stress environment.[7] (R. at 92.) Muller also stated that Coffey would be limited to no more than occasional contact with the public. (R. at 92.) He stated that the limitations identified would have been ongoing since May 31, 2010, the alleged onset date. (R. at 93.) Muller stated that there was no evidence in the record to indicate that Coffey suffered from fatigue to the point that it would diminish her ability to concentrate. (R. at 96.)

         Vocational expert, Robert Jackson, also testified at Coffey's 2013 hearing. (R. at 96-101.) Jackson testified that a hypothetical individual of Coffey's age, education and work history, who could perform simple, one- to two-step light work that did not require more than frequent climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds and stooping; that was not quota-based, fast-based or production-oriented; and that required no more than occasional contact with the public, could not perform any of Coffey's past work. (R. at 99-100.) Jackson stated that there would be a significant number of other jobs that such an individual could perform, including jobs as a cleaner, a packer and a mail clerk. (R. at 100.) Jackson next testified that a hypothetical individual, who would need to take breaks at unscheduled times for unpredicted periods throughout the day and who would have difficulties in maintaining attention, concentration, persistence and pace, could not perform Coffey's past work or any other work. (R. at 100-01.)

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Buckingham County Sheriff's Office; Buckingham Department of Social Services; Alan D. Entin, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Dr. David C. Williams, M.D., a state agency physician; John Kalil, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Dr. Paul Frye, M.D., a state agency physician; Hildebran Medical Clinic; Arvonia Chiropractic Center; Health and Wellness Center of Louisa; Dr. Anjali Joshi, M.D.; Martha ...


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