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Honeycutt v. Colvin

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

October 18, 2016

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


          Pamela Meade Sargent United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Background and Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, William R. Honeycutt, (“Honeycutt”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), determining that he 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). Oral argument has not been requested; therefore, the matter 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 Honeycutt protectively filed an application for DIB on February 2, 2012, alleging disability as of May 11, 2011, due to problems with his back, neck, left shoulder and left knee; insomnia; depression; and anxiety. (Record, (“R.”), at 169-70, 185, 189, 212, 223.) The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. at 85-87, 91-93, 96-100, 102-04.) Honeycutt then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”). (R. at 105.) A hearing was held on November 6, 2013, at which Honeycutt was represented by counsel. (R. at 34-56.)

         By decision dated December 3, 2013, the ALJ denied Honeycutt's claim. (R. at 15-28.) The ALJ found that Honeycutt meets the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through December 31, 2016. (R. at 17.) The ALJ also found that Honeycutt had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 11, 2011, his alleged onset date.[1] (R. at 17.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Honeycutt suffered from severe impairments, namely hypertension; arthralgias; gastroesophageal reflux disease, (“GERD”); mitral valve disorder; lumbar radiculopathy; obstructive sleep apnea; and osteoarthritis, but he found that Honeycutt 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 17-20.) The ALJ found that Honeycutt had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work[2] that did not require more than occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, stooping, kneeling, crouching and overhead reaching with the left upper extremity; that did not require crawling or climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and that did not require him to work around concentrated exposure to cold, wetness and hazards, such as moving machinery or heights. (R. at 20-21.) The ALJ found that Honeycutt was able to perform his past relevant work as a directory assistance operator. (R. at 27.) Thus, the ALJ found that Honeycutt was not under a disability as defined by the Act and was not eligible for DIB benefits. (R. at 27-28.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f) (2015).

         After the ALJ issued his decision, Honeycutt pursued his administrative appeals, (R. at 7-10), but the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Honeycutt 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 Honeycutt's motion for summary judgment filed January 5, 2016, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed February 8, 2016.

         II. Facts

         Honeycutt was born in 1956, (R. at 169), which, at the time of the ALJ's decision, classified him as a “person of advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e). Honeycutt has a high school education and past work experience as a cable splicer and as a directory assistance operator. (R. at 39-40, 189-90.) Honeycutt testified at his hearing that he suffered a work-related back injury in 1999. (R. at 39.)

         Vocational expert, Gerald K. Wells, [3] also testified at Honeycutt's hearing. (R. at 50-55.) Wells classified Honeycutt's work as a cable splicer as light[4] and skilled, and his work as a directory assistant as sedentary and semi-skilled. (R. at 51.) Wells was asked to consider a hypothetical individual of Honeycutt's age, education and work experience, who would be limited to light work that did not require climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds, kneeling or crawling; that did not require more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, stooping, crouching and reaching with his left upper extremity; and that did not require concentrated exposure to cold, wetness and hazardous moving machinery. (R. at 51-52.) Wells stated that the individual would be limited to light and sedentary work, and such an individual could perform Honeycutt's past work in directory assistance. (R. at 52.) When asked to consider the same individual who would be limited to light work that did not require more than occasional decision making and changes in the work setting, Wells stated that such an individual could not perform any of Honeycutt's past work. (R. at 52-53.) Wells stated that the individual could, however, perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including those of an office helper, a cashier and a mail room clerk, all of which were classified as light work. (R. at 53-54.) Wells stated that, should the same hypothetical individual be limited to sedentary work, he could not perform Honeycutt's past work as a directory assistant based on the stress level limitation provided. (R. at 54-55.)

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Wise County Public Schools; Dr. Michael Hartman, M.D., a state agency physician; Joseph Leizer, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Dr. Joseph Duckwall, M.D., a state agency physician; Norton Community Hospital; Vada Rose, F.N.P., a family nurse practitioner; Dr. Mark A. Rowley, M.D.; Patrick N. Farley, Ed.D., a licensed professional counselor; Dr. Kevin Blackwell, D.O.; Robert S. Spangler, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist; Dr. Danny A. Mullins, M.D., an orthopaedist; Willard D. Sims, M.Ed., a licensed senior psychological examiner; Diane L. Whitehead, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist; Dr. Charles Black, D.O.; Dr. Jack Dalton, D.O.; and Dr. Khalid J. Awan, M.D.

         Honeycutt received physical therapy for his low back pain at Norton Community Hospital from August 2011 through October 2011. (R. at 238-88, 295- 314, 317-23, 344-45.) Honeycutt made significant improvement and reported decreased pain and increased range of motion in his lumbar and cervical spines. (R. at 238, 245, 247, 345.) He performed household chores and activities of daily living independently and was discharged with a home exercise program. (R. at 344-45.)

         On September 24, 2010, Honeycutt saw Vada Rose, F.N.P., a family nurse practitioner with Community Physicians, for allergy symptoms. (R. at 365-66.) Honeycutt reported that he had lost weight after recently participating in a fast, which made him feel better. (R. at 365.) He reported occasional left shoulder and lumbar spine pain. (R. at 365.) Honeycutt stated that he experienced back pain after mowing or doing strenuous labor. (R. at 365.) Upon examination, Honeycutt had no edema in his lower extremities; he had pain with bending; and he had no reduction or restriction with range of motion in his back or left shoulder. (R. at 365.) He reported that Lortab relieved his back pain. (R. at 365.) On December 23, 2010, Honeycutt complained of left elbow and right knee pain. (R. at 363.) Upon examination, Honeycutt had pain in the left elbow with extension and flexion; positive Tinel's sign; normal strength in both arms; and normal grip strength in both hands. (R. at 363.) He had pain in his right knee with flexion and extension, but normal strength in both legs. (R. at 363.)

         On May 24, 2011, Honeycutt reported that he was planning to retire on June 18, 2011. (R. at 360-61.) He expressed excitement about the prospects of being able to do some things that he enjoyed, such as fishing and hunting. (R. at 360.) He complained of joint pain in his knees and lower back. (R. at 360.) On examination, Honeycutt had pain in the lower back with bending forward, backward and side-to-side. (R. at 360.) Honeycutt also had pain in both knees with extension, flexion and rotation, but no restriction or reduction with range of motion. (R. at 360.) On May 26, 2011, x-rays of Honeycutt's cervical, thoracic and lumbar spines showed mild degenerative changes without other acute abnormality. (R. at 329-31.) On June 9, 2011, an echocardiogram showed moderate mitral valve regurgitation; mild thickening/calcification of the anterior and posterior mitral leaflets; mild mitral annular calcification; mild tricuspid regurgitation; and mild pulmonary hypertension. (R. at 327-28.)

         On August 24, 2011, Honeycutt complained of back pain. (R. at 338-39.) On August 26, 2011, an MRI of Honeycutt's lumbar spine showed lumbar degenerative changes and multilevel lumbar discogenic disease, including disc protrusions and annular tears. (R. at 324.) A sleep study performed on September 14, 2011, showed no evidence of obstructive apnea-hypopnea syndrome, and no arrhythmias, parasomnias or periodic limb movements were noted. (R. at 315.) On December 28, 2011, Honeycutt complained of palpitations after taking over-the-counter herbal supplements, as well as arthralgias. (R. at 340-42.) He denied neck pain, depression, anxiety and memory loss. (R. at 340-41.) Examination of Honeycutt's left knee showed anterior knee tenderness and a rash on his lower extremities. (R. at 342.) On December 28, 2011, x-rays of Honeycutt's left knee showed a large joint effusion and soft tissue swelling. (R. at 294.)

         On January 4, 2012, Dr. Charles Black, D.O., a physician with Community Physicians, saw Honeycutt for left knee pain. (R. at 383.) Honeycutt had no gross motor or sensory deficits; he denied tenderness to deep palpation along the patella tendon and quadriceps tendon; he had a positive patella grind test; and he displayed full range of motion of the knee. (R. at 383.) X-rays of Honeycutt's left knee showed well-maintained joint space at the medial, lateral and patella femoral compartment. (R. at 383.) Dr. Black diagnosed chondromalacia of the left patella. (R. at 383.) Honeycutt was advised to continue activity as tolerated and was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication. (R. at 383.)

         On February 1, 2012, Dr. Mark A. Rowley, M.D., saw Honeycutt for left knee pain. (R. at 381.) Honeycutt reported some relief with anti-inflammatory medication. (R. at 381.) Dr. Rowley reported that Honeycutt had a normal gait; that his left knee demonstrated full range of motion; he had no atrophy or effusion; he had normal strength; and mild medial joint line tenderness. (R. at 381.) Dr. Rowley diagnosed mild degenerative joint disease with possible associated meniscal tear. (R. at 381.) Honeycutt agreed with nonoperative management and to continue with his anti-inflammatory medication. (R. at 381.) On March ...

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