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Lopez v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

October 13, 2016

RAFAEL LESEAN RASHEED LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United Slates Magistrate Judge.

         On March 14, 2012, Rafael Lesean Rasheed Lopez ("Plaintiff) applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from right leg and knee problems, chronic asthma and high blood pressure, with an alleged onset date of October 12, 2009. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence and Plaintiffs credibility, and in determining Plaintiffs Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 9) at 7-14.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter now ripe for review.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 9) be GRANTED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) be DENIED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be VACATED and REMANDED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 14, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, with an alleged onset date of March 14, 2012.[2] (R. at 81-89.) The SSA denied these claims initially on July 23, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on January 4, 2013. (R. at 92-96, 104-10.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held hearings on April 10, 2014, and June 24, 2014. (R. at 31-55, 56-70.) On July 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because Plaintiff had not suffered from a disability within the meaning of the Act since March 14, 2012, the date that he filed the application. (R. at 17-24.) On November 13, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-4.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination 'when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(H). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC, accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform his past work given his RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On April 10, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) testified. (R. at 31-55.) On June 24, 2014, the ALJ held a second hearing, during which a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 31-55, 56-70.) On July 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 17-24.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 17-19.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 14, 2012, the alleged onset date. (R. at 19.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the right knee, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and obesity. (R. at 19.) At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii); (R. at 19.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work. (R. at 20.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could lift, carry, push and pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff could stand and walk for four hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff could occasionally operate foot controls with the right lower extremity. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff could frequently climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. (R. at 20.) Additionally, Plaintiff could frequently balance and could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 20.) Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform jobs that permit one to change position between sitting and standing at intervals of approximately twenty to thirty minutes while remaining on task. (R. at 20.) At step four, the ALJ did not consider whether Plaintiff had the RFC to perform past relevant work, because Plaintiff did not have past relevant work. (R. at 23.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his age, education, work experience and RFC. (R. at 23.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 24.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, thirty-one years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a cook, a dishwasher, a stocker and a cashier. (R. at 88.) On March 14, 2012, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging disability from right leg and knee problems, chronic asthma and high blood pressure. (R. at 195-204, 218.) Plaintiff raises three arguments on this appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred in not affording greater weight to the opinions of Dr. William Nordt, Plaintiffs treating physician; (2) that the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiffs credibility; and (3) that the ALJ failed to cite sufficient evidence to support his RFC determination. (Pl.'s Mem. at 7-14.) Defendant responds that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's RFC assessment. (Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. For Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 10) at 18-19.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in his assignment of weight or assessment of credibility, but did err by failing to cite sufficient evidence in support of his RFC determination.

         A. The ALJ did not err in assigning little weight to the opinion of ...


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