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Cook v. Colvin

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

September 28, 2016

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


          Pamela Meade Sargent, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Background and Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, Helen Lugene Cook, (“Cook”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), determining that she was not eligible for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. § 423 (West 2011). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by transfer based on consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Cook has requested oral argument in this matter.

         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 Cook filed an application for DIB on March 21, 2012, alleging disability as of September 1, 2006, due to arthritis; chronic back pain; chronic tendonitis; insomnia; anxiety; depression; and paranoia. (Record, (“R.”), at 183-84, 200, 226.) The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 90-92, 96-98, 101, 103-04, 107-08.) Cook then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”). (R. at 111.) A video hearing was held on November 20, 2013, at which Cook was represented by counsel. (R. at 34-58.)

         By decision dated January 28, 2014, the ALJ denied Cook's claim. (R. at 21-29.) The ALJ found that Cook met the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through December 31, 2011. (R. at 23.) The ALJ also found that Cook had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2006, her alleged onset date.[1] (R. at 23.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, the medical evidence established that Cook suffered from severe impairments, namely carpal tunnel syndrome; ulnar nerve disorder; mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; myalgias; and hypertension, but he found that Cook did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed at or medically equal to one listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 23-24.) The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Cook had the residual functional capacity to perform light work[2] that did not require more than occasional reaching, handling and fingering. (R. at 24.) The ALJ found that Cook was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. at 27.) Based on Cook's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Cook could perform, including jobs as a counter rental clerk and an usher. (R. at 27-28.) Thus, the ALJ found that Cook was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not eligible for DIB benefits. (R. at 28-29.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (2015).

         After the ALJ issued his decision, Cook pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 16), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Cook 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 (2015). The case is before this court on the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed February 25, 2016.[3]

         II. Facts

         Cook was born in 1960, (R. at 37, 183), 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). Cook has a high school education and past work experience as a cook, a cook helper and a pizza delivery person. (R. at 39-40, 201.) Cook testified that her medications helped to relieve her symptoms “quite a bit, ” but that they caused drowsiness. (R. at 51.)

         Vocational expert, John Newman, also testified at Cook's hearing. (R. at 40, 54-57.) Newman was asked to consider a hypothetical individual of Cook's age, education and work experience, who would be limited to light work that did not require more than occasional handling or fingering. (R. at 54-55.) Newman stated that such an individual could not perform Cook's past job of pizza delivery because of the limitation to occasional handling and fingering. (R. at 55.) Newman stated that the individual could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including those of counter and rental clerks and ushers or lobby attendants/ticket takers. (R. at 55.) Newman was asked to consider the same individual, but who would be limited to sedentary[4] work that did not require more than occasional handling and fingering. (R. at 55-56.) He stated that there would be no jobs available that such an individual could perform. (R. at 56.) Newman stated that, if the individual was limited as indicated by Dr. Craven's assessment, there would be no jobs available that such an individual could perform. (R. at 57.)

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed medical records from Dr. Michael Hartman, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. Jagjit Sandhu, M.D., a state agency physician; April L. Strobel-Nuss, Psy.D., a state agency psychologist; Blue Ridge Family Chiropractic; Dr. Melvin L. Heiman, M.D.; Dr. John M. Chandler, M.D.; Johnston Memorial Hospital; Holston Family Health; Pioneer Medical Center of King; Stone Mountain Health Services; University of Virginia Health System; and Mountainview Medical Center. Cook's attorney also submitted a Medical Source Statement from Dr. Bickley Craven, M.D., to the Appeals Council.[5]

         The record shows that Cook was treated at Stone Mountain Health Services, (“Stone Mountain”), from April 2003 through August 2012 for complaints of back pain; urinary tract infections; abdominal pain/strain; tendonitis of the right arm, elbow and thumb; mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, (“COPD”); restless leg syndrome; insomnia; headaches; left shoulder pain; and hypertension. (R. at 492-736.)[6] In June and August 2003, Cook complained of back pain after chasing her dog and painting her kitchen. (R. at 617-18.) Dr. Bickley Craven, M.D., diagnosed lateral epicondylitis, recurrent back pain and hypertension. (R. at 617.) In January 2004, Cook complained of right arm tendonitis. (R. at 615.) She reported that Percocet was not helping and requested Roxicet. (R. at 615.) It was noted that Cook exhibited drug seeking behavior. (R. at 614.) A review of the chart showed that Cook had complained of arm pain one time in August 2003. (R. at 615.) Physical examination was normal. (R. at 614-15.) In August 2006, Cook suffered a back sprain following a motor vehicle accident. (R. at 588.) She reported that her migraine headaches had improved. (R. at 588.) Dr. Craven diagnosed piriformis muscle spasms. (R. at 588.) In February 2007, Cook saw Dr. Craven for follow up of a fractured finger. (R. at 581.) She reported that her back and hand pain was relieved with medication. (R. at 581.) On April 3, 2007, Cook reported that she had experienced back pain “on and off” since 2003, after attempting to roll a log into a fire. (R. at 576.) Dr. Craven diagnosed improved piriformis muscle spasm; chronic low back pain; upper body muscle spasm; fracture to fourth finger; and mild COPD. (R. at 578.) On April 14, 2007, a spirometry test was performed, which showed only mild obstruction. (R. at 729-31.) In November 2007, Dr. Craven noted that Cook's hypertension was stable while off of medication. (R. at 570.)

         On January 16, 2008, Cook complained of lower mid-abdominal pain and back pain after pulling on a hot tub cover. (R. at 569.) On June 26, 2008, Cook complained of left-sided rib pain after her step-daughter was pulling her arms in an attempt to carry her on her back. (R. at 563.) In July 2008, Cook continued to complain of left rib cage tenderness. (R. at 560.) Dr. Craven diagnosed strained intercostal muscle, recurrent back pain and hypertension. (R. at 558.) On September 30, 2008, Cook complained of anxiety and depression resulting from raising her boyfriend's teenagers. (R. at 557.) On December 2, 2008, Cook reported that she was taking care of and boarding dogs. (R. at 554.) On April 15, 2009, Cook stated that she had been driving a lot and, as a result, she had arm and hand pain. (R. at 551.) She also complained of feet and right hip pain after walking her dogs and working outside. (R. at 551.) Dr. Craven noted that Cook's anxiety was stable, and her hypertension was controlled. (R. at 549.) On July 29, 2009, Cook reported anxiety related to raising step-children. (R. at 548.) On October 28, 2009, Cook complained of abdominal pain after cleaning for more than one hour. (R. at 545.) She also continued to complain of anxiety related to her step-children. (R. at 545.) On March 10, 2010, Cook complained of chronic back pain after doing “outside jobs at home” and housework. (R. at 542.) On July 20, 2010, Cook reported increased stress related to her boyfriend's children. (R. at 539.) On October 19, 2010, Cook reported that the muscle spasms in her arms and legs were better with medication and that her chronic back pain was stable with medication. (R. at 534.)

         On January 26, 2011, Cook complained of increased pain in her right elbow after “cracking a lot [of] black walnuts.” (R. at 528.) On April 19, 2011, Cook complained of increased stress following the breakup with her boyfriend. (R. at 522.) She stated that her back pain was better since her Lortab prescription had been increased. (R. at 522.) Cook also reported pain in her arms and elbows with physical exertion. (R. at 522.) Dr. Craven noted that Cook's depression and anxiety symptoms were stable. (R. at 520.) On April 27, 2011, a transvaginal ultrasound showed a small subserosal fibroid and a small myometrial cyst. (R. at 529.) On May 31, 2011, Cook complained of chronic back pain after a lawn chair fell with her in it. (R. at 519.) On September 28, 2011, Cook reported that she was in the process of moving. (R. at 513.) She complained of increased tendonitis since running out of Klonopin. (R. at 513.) On November 29, 2011, Cook complained of increased pain in her hands and arms, as well as muscle spasms in her right forearm and neck. (R. at 510.) She stated that Lortab and Klonopin helped relieve her symptoms. (R. at 510.) On February 29, 2012, Cook complained of increased back pain after pushing a hot tub lid up against a window. (R. at 507.) She reported that her symptoms of depression and anxiety had improved. (R. at 507.) On May 30, 2012, Cook complained of low back and shoulder pain after moving household items to her new residence. (R. at 504.) On August 21, 2012, Cook complained of right elbow pain and back pain after pulling a golf cart off of a cliff. (R. at 493-95.) She also complained of increased depression and anxiety due to a relationship breakup and her dog being diagnosed with cancer. (R. at 495.) Dr. Craven assessed increased depression and anxiety; right ulnar pain; back pain; hypertension; and recurrent forearm tendonitis. (R. at 493.)

         On November 15, 2013, Dr. Craven completed a Clinical Assessment of Pain, indicating that Cook's pain was present and found to be incapacitating; that physical activity greatly increased her pain, causing abandonment of tasks related to daily activities or work; and that Cook was restricted ...

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