United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge
Constance Harris asks this Court to review the Commissioner
of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final
decision denying her applications for disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. The
case is before me by referral under 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B). ECF No. 12. Having considered the
administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the
applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's decision that Harris is not disabled.
Therefore, I recommend that the Court DENY
Harris's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, GRANT
the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No.
15, and AFFIRM the Commissioner's final decision.
Standard of Review
Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the
Commissioner's final decision that a person is not
entitled to disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561
(4th Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it
may not “reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that
of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d
470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, the Court asks only
whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings. Meyer
v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011).
evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971). It is “more than a mere
scintilla” of evidence, id., but not
necessarily “a large or considerable amount of
evidence, ” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552,
565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account
the entire record, and not just the evidence cited by the
ALJ. See Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S.
474, 487-89 (1951); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d
231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984). Ultimately, this Court must affirm
the ALJ's factual findings if “conflicting evidence
allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). However,
“[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it
was reached by means of an improper standard or
misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen,
829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
person is “disabled” if he or she is unable to
engage in “any substantial gainful activity by reason
of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment
which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted
or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§
423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Social Security ALJs follow a
five-step process to determine whether an applicant is
disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the applicant
(1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an
impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the
Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past
relevant work based on his or her residual functional
capacity; and, if not (5) whether he or she can perform other
work. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62
(1983); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
The applicant bears the burden of proof at steps one through
four. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. At step five, the
burden shifts to the agency to prove that the applicant is
not disabled. See id.
applied for DIB and SSI on January 30, 2012, alleging
disability caused by high blood pressure, injury to the
rotator cuff in her right shoulder, and chronic impingement
and arthritis of the right acromioclavicular
(“AC”) joint. Administrative Record
(“R.”) 69, 78, ECF No. 9. She claimed onset of
her disability on March 28, 2011, at which time she was
fifty-eight years old. Id. She had previously worked
as a machine operator and as a certified nursing assistant
(“CNA”). R. 218-26. Disability Determination
Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied
Harris's claim at the initial and reconsideration stages.
R. 69-86, 89-110. On January 16, 2014, she appeared with
counsel at an administrative hearing before ALJ Mary C.
Peltzer. R. 26- 54. The ALJ heard testimony from Harris, R.
31-49, and a vocational expert (“VE”), R. 49-53.
Peltzer denied Harris's claim in a written decision
issued on February 11, 2014. R. 12-21. She found that Harris
had severe impairments of post-operative right shoulder
disorder, including degenerative changes of the AC joint and
full thickness tear of the rotator cuff, essential
hypertension, and obesity; Harris's other impairments,
including possible carpal tunnel syndrome in the left wrist,
diabetes mellitus, anemia, and allergic rhinitis, were found
to be nonsevere. R. 14. The ALJ next determined that none of
Harris's impairments, alone or in combination, met or
medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. R.
14-16. ALJ Peltzer then found that Harris had the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
with some postural limitations, including only occasional
pushing and pulling with the right upper extremity and no
overhead reaching with that extremity. R. 16-20. Based on
this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that
Harris could not perform her past work as a CNA, but could
perform her past work as a sewing machine operator as that
work is generally performed. She therefore concluded that
Harris was not disabled. R. 20. The Appeals Council declined
Harris's request for review, R. 1-3, and this appeal
appeal, Harris contends that the ALJ's RFC determination
was erroneous because it did not fully account for the
limiting effects of her right shoulder
condition. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ did
not properly reconcile the conflicting opinions of the
medical experts, Pl. Br. 4-9, ECF No. 14, and failed to
conduct a function-by-function assessment as required under
the regulations, id. at 9-11.
first injured her right shoulder at work in December 2009
while trying to move a patient. R. 328. In January 2010, she
began treating with Michael Kyles, M.D., who provided her
with forms excusing her from work. R. 311-16, 323. Dr. Kyles
noted that Harris's work as a CNA required a lot of
lifting. R. 323. An MRI taken on February 10 showed a full
thickness tear of the rotator cuff and moderate to severe
degenerative change of the AC joint. R. 290, 322. During this
time, Harris experienced pain and limited range of motion,
and she was unable to do any of the lifting required for her
work as a CNA. R. 322-23. Dr. Kyles ...