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Seymour v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2017

MELANIE ANNE SEYMOUR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. 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 claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., respectively. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues now before the court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, or, whether there is "good cause" to necessitate remanding the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The plaintiff, Melanie Anne Seymour, was born on November 28, 1979, and eventually completed her high school education. Ms. Seymour testified at the administrative hearing that she has "some college." (TR 73). Plaintiff has worked as a pharmacy technician, retail manager, day care teacher, and companion. She last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2009. On February 27, 2013, Ms. Seymour filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Earlier applications for benefits had proven unsuccessful. In filing her current claims, Ms. Seymour alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on January 15, 2009 due to anxiety, depression, lower back pain, nerve pain in both legs, intestinal problems, kidney disorder, nose problems, asthma, anemia, and female problems. (TR 293). She now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. As to her application for disability insurance benefits, the record reveals that Ms. Seymour met the insured status requirements of the Act through the fourth quarter of 2013, but not thereafter. See gen.. 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, 2013. See gen.. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         Ms. Seymour's applications were 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 February 4, 2016, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff is not disabled. The Law Judge found that Ms. Seymour suffers from several severe impairments, including anemia, lumbar spine disorder, kidney disease, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, obesity, fibromyalgia, and personality disorder. (TR 16). While the Law Judge also noted that plaintiff has a history of episodic alcohol abuse, the Law Judge did not consider this problem to be material to the issue of disability, and he evaluated plaintiffs alcohol issues in connection with her emotional difficulties. The Law Judge ruled that Ms. Seymour is disabled for all of her past work roles. (TR 29). However, despite plaintiffs combination of severe impairments, the Law Judge found that Ms. Seymour retains sufficient functional capacity for a limited range of sedentary work activity. The Law Judge assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), but she can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; frequently reach, handle, finger and feel; and can have occasional exposure to workplace hazards (such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts). She also is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks; simple work-related decisions; a static work environment where changes in tasks are infrequent and explained when they do occur; and occasional contact with the public, supervisors and co-workers.

(TR 20). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering Ms. Seymour's age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity to perform several specific sedentary work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 29-30). Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that plaintiff is not disabled, and that she is not entitled to benefits under either federal program. See gen., 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Ms. Seymour has now appealed to this court.

         While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2) and 1382c(a). 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 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).

         Upon review of the medical and vocational evidence, the court is unable to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. While the medical record confirms that Ms. Seymour suffers from a variety of physical problems, and while there is some question as to her capacity to remain seated for prolonged periods of time, the court believes that the Commissioner reasonably concluded that plaintiff retains sufficient physical capacity to engage in sedentary work roles in which she is permitted to sit or stand at will. Indeed, the court believes that the Administrative Law Judge accounted for many of plaintiff s work-related problems in his hypothetical question to the vocational expert at the administrative hearing. However, the court must conclude that the Law Judge did not account for all of the manifestations of plaintiff s emotional conditions in the hypothetical question put to the vocational expert. Thus, the court finds "good cause" for remand of this case to the Commissioner so that all of plaintiff s work-related limitations can be considered in assessing her capacity for other work roles.

         The medical record confirms that Ms. Seymour has a history of treatment for various emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. As recognized by the Administrative Law Judge, one of plaintiff s primary care providers, Dr. Samir Sudhir Panvelker, has reported on several occasions that Ms. Seymour is unable to work due to manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Based on his review of Dr. Panvelker's clinical notes, and based on the fact that Dr. Panvelker is not a mental health specialist, the Law Judge determined to give "minimal weight" to the physician's assessment of plaintiffs capacity for work activity. (TR 27). Instead, the Law Judge determined to give "great weight" to the opinions of the state agency psychological consultants who reviewed all of the evidence of record during the initial consideration and reconsideration phases of Ms. Seymour's case. (TR 19, 26). In this context, the Law Judge commented as follows:

I have also considered the state agency psychological consultants' findings that the claimant had mild to moderate limitations in activities of daily living; moderate limitations in social functioning; moderate limitations in concentration, persistence and pace; no repeated episodes of decompensation each of extended duration; and no evidence establishing the presence of "paragraph C" criteria (Exhibits 1 A, 3A, SA, 7A). Great weight is given to those assessments because they are consistent with and supported by the evidence of record, as more fully discussed below.

(TR 19).

         The difficulty in this case is that in formulating a hypothetical question for the vocational expert, the Administrative Law Judge did not attempt to account for the psychological consultants' findings of "moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace." Despite having found that Ms. Seymour suffers from severe impairments based on anxiety, depression, and personality disorder, which result in moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace, the Law Judge asked the vocational expert only to consider that plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a static work environment, which do not require frequent changes in task or more than occasional contact with other persons. While the Law Judge adopted the vocational expert's opinion that plaintiff can perform sedentary work as a material handler/packer, machine operator, and inspector/sorter, the vocational expert was not asked to consider the significance of moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace in the performance of such jobs, all of which would seemingly require attendance to task.[2] Nevertheless, the Law Judge relied on the testimony of the vocational expert in determining that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity for several specific work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 29-30).

         In Walker v. Bowen. 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit commented as follows:

The purpose of bringing in a vocational expert is to assist the ALJ in determining whether there is work available in the national economy which this particular claimant can perform. In order for a vocational expert's opinion to be relevant or helpful, it must be based upon a consideration of all other evidence in the record, and it must be in response to proper ...

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