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Powell v. Colvin

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

October 14, 2016

LLOYD POWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge.

         On August 20, 2012, Lloyd Hall Powell, Jr. ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from a stroke, speech problems, right side pain, a crooked right leg, diabetes and high blood pressure with an alleged onset date of June 14, 2012. 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 as 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 by failing to make a function-by-function assessment and by conducting an improper Craig analysis. (Mem. in Support of Pl.'s Mot. For Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 10) at 3-10.) 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. 8) and Plaintiffs Motion to Remand (ECF No. 9) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 20, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB with an alleged onset date of June 14, 2012 . (R. at 137-45.) The SSA denied these claims initially on October 19, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on August 8, 2013. (R. at 55-78.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on October 2, 2014. (R. at 20-54, 83-84.) On November 19, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because he could perform his past jobs as a cleaner and a maintenance supervisor, as well as other jobs in the national economy. (R. at 7-18.) On December 15, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-3.)

         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, 661 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 a 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)(ii). 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 residual functional capacity ("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 ALPS DECISION

         On October 2, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 20-54.) On November 19, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 7-18.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 7-18.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity between his alleged onset date of June 14, 2012 and his date last insured of March 31, 2013. (R. at 12.) At step two, the ALJ deemed Plaintiffs diabetes mellitus and cerebrovascular accident "severe" impairments under 20 CFR § 404.1520(c), because they were medically determined and imposed more than minimal limitations on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities through the date last insured. (R. at 12.) At step three, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 12-13.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(c), which included occasionally lifting and carrying fifty pounds and frequently lifting and carrying twenty-five pounds; he could sit, stand, or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff could constantly push or pull at the medium exertion level; he could frequently climb stairs or ramps; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; and, he could occasionally be around unprotected heights. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 13.) At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiffs impairments did not preclude him from performing his prior relevant work as a cleaner and maintenance supervisor. (R. at 16-18.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 16-18.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, sixty-seven years old at the time of this Report and Recommendation, previously worked as a cleaner and maintenance supervisor. (R. at 139, 162.) He applied for Social Security Benefits, alleging disability from a stroke, speech problems, right side pain, a crooked right leg, diabetes and high blood pressure with an alleged onset date of June 14, 2012. (R. at 137-45, 161.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred by failing to (1) make a function-by-function assessment, (2) conduct a proper Craig analysis and (3) make a meaningful credibility finding at step two of the Craig analysis. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-10.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in his decision.

         A. The ALJ did not err by failing to perform a function-by-function analysis, because substantial evidence from the record supports the RFC conclusions.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by failing to make a function-by-function assessment. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-4.) According to Plaintiff, the ALJ's opinion included no discussion linking evidence in the record to the ALJ's conclusions, thus requiring reversal. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-4.) For example, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision does not explain how he determined that Plaintiff could "lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, or walk, sit, and stand six hours a day." (Pl.'s Mem. at 3.) Further, Plaintiff asserts that this error is not harmless, because the missing discussion pertains to relevant and contested functions. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-4.) Defendant responds by arguing that the ALJ complied with the requirements for a proper RFC assessment, which included a function-by-function analysis. (Mem. in Support of Def.'s Mot. For Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem") (ECF No. 11) at 11-14.)

         After step three of the ALJ's sequential analysis, but before deciding whether a claimant can perform past relevant work at step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC. 20C.F.R. §§ 416.902(e)-(t), 416.945(a)(1). In analyzing a claimant's abilities, the ALJ must first assess the nature and extent of a claimant's physical limitations and then determine the claimant's RFC for work activity on a regular and continuing basis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(b). Generally, the claimant shoulders the responsibility for providing the evidence that the ALJ utilizes in making his RFC determination; however, before determining that a claimant does not have a disability, the ALJ must develop the claimant's complete medical history, including scheduling consultative examinations if necessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). The RFC must incorporate impairments ...


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