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Grubb v. Colvin

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

January 18, 2017

EDNA RUTH MARSHALL GRUBB, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Honorable Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This court's review is limited to a determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion that plaintiff failed to meet the requirements for entitlement to benefits under the Act. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze. 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The plaintiff, Edna Ruth Marshall Grubb, was born on December 4, 1958. Mrs. Grubb obtained a GED. Plaintiff has worked in a number of jobs, including truck driver, cashier, sewing machine operator, and furniture assembler. She last worked on a regular basis in 2010. On March 29, 2012, Mrs. Grubb filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. She alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on July 17, 2007, due to degenerative disc disease, herniated discs, back problems, and vision problems. At the time of the administrative hearing, Mrs. Grubb amended her application so as to reflect an alleged disability onset date of December 8, 2010. (TR 34). Plaintiff now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. The record reveals that Mrs. Grubb met the insured status requirements of the Act through the fourth quarter of 2012, but not thereafter. See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a). Consequently, plaintiff is entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits only if she has established that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on or before December 31, 2012. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         Mrs. Grubb's application was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated June 6, 2014, the Law Judge also determined that Mrs. Grubb was not disabled. The Law Judge found that, prior to termination of insured status, plaintiff suffered from several impairments, including degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; moderate obesity; and left shoulder bursitis. (TR 14). Because of these impairments, the Law Judge ruled that plaintiff was limited to light work activity at the time of her alleged disability onset, and through the date last insured. (TR 15). The Law Judge assessed Mrs. Grubb's residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through I the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform; light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b); involving no more than occasional I postural movements such as stoop, crouch, climb, or kneel; no more than occasional overhead reaching; and other reaching, fingering, and handling i frequently but not constant.

(TR 15). Given such a residual functional capacity, the Law Judge found that plaintiff was j disabled for her prior work activity as a truck driver. However, the Law Judge determined that Mrs. Grubb could have worked as a cashier and knitter at all relevant times prior to the termination of insured status. (TR 24). Based on these findings, and after considering plaintiffs age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retained sufficient functional capacity to work in several cashier and knitter positions at all relevant times prior to the termination of insured status. (TR 24). Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that Mrs. Grubb was not disabled, and that she is not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. (TR 24). See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The Law Judge's opinion was eventually adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mrs. Grubb has now appealed to this court.

         While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual ' determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and j clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch. 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff. 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).

         After a review of the record in this case, the court is constrained to conclude that the1 Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. During the relevant period from the date of alleged disability onset through the termination of her insured status, plaintiff suffered from degenerative disease process throughout her back and neck. She also suffered from obesity, and bursitis in her left shoulder. The Administrative Law Judge relied on reports from state agency physicians in determining that plaintiffs musculoskeletal problems were not so: severe as to prevent performance of lighter forms of work activity. (TR 23). The Law Judge also cited physical findings made following a consultative medical examination. (TR 19-20). More importantly, the Law Judge relied on reports from treating physicians, including Dr. John W. Carmody, an orthopaedic surgeon, and Dr. Rollin J. Hawley, a neurologist. Based on examinations completed in 2010, both Dr. Carmody and Dr. Hawley opined that plaintiff could no longer engage in the physical activity required in her prior work role as a truck driver. However, both Dr. Carmody and Dr. Hawley considered Mrs. Grubb capable of performing less strenuous forms of activity. In making their assessments, both medical specialists relied on their own; clinical examinations as well as results from an MRI study in October of 2010. The Administrative Law Judge considered the reports from both specialists in some detail.

         Dr. Carmody treated Mrs. Grubb over a period of several years. Dr. Carmody referred Mrs. Grubb to Dr. Hawley for a neurological consultation. On November 29, 2010, Dr. Hawley wrote to Dr. Carmody:

I agree that your 10/12/10 lumbar MRI scan, showing relatively mild bulges in the lower lumbar spine, with relatively mild canal neural foraminal encroachment at; multiple levels, as well as a degenerative disk disease and facet degenerative changes, does not indicate surgery. If the simple measures above do not help her, we might try to give her medications for neuropathic pain, such as sedating tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil or Pamelor at bedtime. I had given her Elavil ' in the past with good effect. Unfortunately, it, or anticonvulsant such as Gabapentin 3X a day, can be associated with weight gain. Another possibility might be to give her Topamax or Topiramate twice a day, hoping to not only decrease her neuropathic pain, but also her appetite and weight, with many health benefits. She does not have a history of kidney stones; would have to drink a lot of water, but not much caffeine, to avoid kidney stones on Topamax.
I agree that Mrs. Marshall/Grubb cannot really work as a truck driver again, because of her Lumbar Radiculopathy; although, fortunately, she has some experience in Human Resources work at Mt. Rogers. I hope that her Worker's Compensation Insurer and Vocational Rehabilitation might help her retrain to allow her to return to this work, or some other work which she enjoys and is capable of performing. I did not give Mrs. Marshall/Grubb a return appointment, but I would be glad to see her again if this would be helpful. Thank you for allowing me to see this lovely, pleasant, and hard-working lady.

(TR433).

In a report dated February 11, 2011, Dr. Carmody assessed plaintiffs status as follows:
Due to this it is not clear to me that she can engage in the performance of her normal duties as a long distance truck driver of up to 16 hours per day without risk. I believe she may be able to do less strenuous work of shorter time durations but she would most likely have difficulty with the demand stated in her current job description as a long distance driver working up to 16 hours per day. In the future she may require an ongoing therapy program to maintain flexibility and strength, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications as indicated and tolerated by the patient, and modification of work load to a level she can sustain. At this time it does not appear that surgery would be of benefit but degenerative disc disease is a progressive condition and in her condition particulary [sic] the cervical disc disease may increase such that it will ...

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