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Harris v. Colvin

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

October 18, 2016

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


          Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         “Substantial 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).

         A 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.

         II. Procedural History

         Harris 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.

         ALJ 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”)[1] to perform light work[2] 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 followed.

         III. Discussion

         On 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.[3] 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.

         A. Relevant Facts

         1.Medical Records

         Harris 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 ...

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