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Glass v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 15, 2017



          Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jimmy Grey Glass asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 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 the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, I recommend that the Court GRANT Glass's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, DENY the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 15, and REMAND the case for further administrative proceedings.

         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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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

         Glass applied for SSI on March 6, 2012, Administrative Record (“R.”) 26-34, 84, ECF No. 9, alleging disability caused by high blood pressure, depression, and arthritis, R. 229. He initially alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2007, R. 26, but later amended it to March 6, 2012, at which time he was fifty-seven years old, R. 12, 51.[1] Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied his claim at the initial, R. 88-98, and reconsideration stages, R. 120-31. On February 25, 2014, Glass appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing before ALJ R. Neely Owen, at which time the ALJ heard testimony from Glass and a vocational expert (“VE”). R. 35-58.

         The ALJ denied Glass's claim in a written decision issued on June 18, 2014. R. 12-21. He found that Glass had severe impairments of hypertension, obesity, and osteoarthritis. R. 15. The ALJ next determined that none of Glass's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. R. 16. As to Glass's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] the ALJ found that he could perform medium work;[3] occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and frequently stoop, balance, and climb ramps and stairs. R. 16-20. Furthermore, he determined that Glass must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. Id. Based on this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Glass could perform his past relevant work as a furniture packer and surveyor helper. R. 20-21. He therefore concluded that Glass was not disabled. R. 21. The Appeals Council denied Glass's request for review, R. 1-4, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Glass challenges the ALJ's finding that he could perform his past work. Pl. Br. 3-4, ECF No. 14. He also challenges the ALJ's RFC determination because the ALJ misread the opinion of the DDS examiner, Josephine Cader, M.D.[4] Id. at 4-5. The Commissioner responds that these errors are harmless. I must disagree. As discussed below, the ALJ misunderstood the medical opinion upon which he patterned the hypothetical to the VE and ultimately adopted as the RFC determination. Furthermore, in finding that Glass could return to his past relevant work, the ALJ relied upon a flawed VE opinion about Glass's past work as generally performed, and he did not develop evidence, question the VE, or make any specific findings about Glass's past work as actually performed. Despite the fairly limited medical evidence to support Glass's claimed limitations, the ALJ's errors so permeate his written opinion that I cannot find that the outcome would have been the same without them. See Kersey v. Astrue, 614 F.Supp. 679, 696 (W.D. Va. 2009) (“Errors are harmless in social security cases when it is inconceivable that a different administrative conclusion would have been reached absent the error.”).

         Assessing Glass's RFC in his written opinion, the ALJ reviewed the medical evidence and Glass's report of symptoms and daily activities. R. 16-20. Glass reported that his impairments caused significant restrictions, including that he could lift no more than five pounds, climb only one flight of stairs, and walk no farther than the mailbox and back. R. 254. Glass said he went outside daily, visited with friends and family, drove and rode in a car, and played a musical instrument once a week. R. 252-53. He experienced pain daily that limited his ability to perform various functions, including squatting, kneeling, bending, stooping, and standing. R. 254, 264-65.

         Additionally, although Glass alleged significant symptoms and limitations, his medical record for the relevant period is not extensive. Glass had uncontrolled high blood pressure with typical readings of 216/95, R. 297; 189/83, R. 300; 175/88, R. 331; and 210/96, R. 405, but physicians also noted that he was asymptomatic, R. 297. As to his osteoarthritis, Glass was treated with Tramadol and Lidoderm patches for pain in his knee, shoulder, and hands. R. 406. Findings on physical examinations were largely normal, R. 301, 331, including range of motion and extremity strength, although bilateral crepitus in the knees was noted. R. 317-18. Imaging showed slight narrowing of the medial articular space in both knees and a small amount of spurring from the right patella. R. 314.

         The ALJ also discussed the medical opinion evidence. R. 19. He assigned “significant weight” to all of the DDS physicians' opinions that Glass could perform medium work, and he gave Dr. Cader's opinion “slightly more weight” because she added environmental limitations. R. 19. Although the ALJ correctly noted that one DDS physician determined that Glass could perform medium work, R. 95, the ALJ's reading of Dr. Cader's opinion was inaccurate.[5] Dr. Cader did not find that Glass could perform medium work. To be sure, Dr. Cader's opinion reflects lifting ...

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