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Lewis v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2017

SYLVIA M. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Robert S. Ballou United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Sylvia M. Lewis (“Lewis”) filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Lewis's sole claim asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) improperly gave limited weight to the opinions of her treating physician, Joseph Wombwell, M.D. I find that the ALJ provided a sufficient explanation for the limited weight given to Dr. Wombwell's opinion. Accordingly, I DENY Lewis's request for relief and GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 16.


         This court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Lewis failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[2] Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).


         Lewis protectively applied for DIB on June 26, 2012, alleging that her disability began on September 15, 2008 due to back cancer, skin cancer, high blood pressure, joint disease of knees and ankles, lower back problems and a cyst on her ovaries. R. 39. The Commissioner denied the application at both the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 39-60, 61- 82. On May 20, 2014, ALJ Marc Mates held a hearing to consider Lewis's disability claim. R. 22-38. Lewis appeared at the hearing with her attorney, James Bowman, and the hearing included testimony from vocational expert Gerald Wells. R. 21-38.

         On July 26, 2014, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Lewis's claim under the familiar five-step process[3] and denied her claim for benefits. R. 10-20. The ALJ found that Lewis was insured at the time of the alleged disability onset and that she suffered from the severe impairments of hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, degenerative joint disease of both knees, and obesity. R. 10-13. The ALJ found that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 13-14. The ALJ then concluded that Lewis retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work.[4]Specifically, the ALJ found that Lewis was limited to lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing and walking for 4 hours in an 8 hour workday, and sitting for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. R. 14. The ALJ further concluded that Lewis could only occasionally climb stairs, balance, kneel or crawl, and that she must avoid exposure to hazards, wetness, and extreme cold. Id.

         The ALJ determined that Lewis would be unable to return to her past relevant work as a sandwich maker, laborer, or picking line worker, but that Lewis could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as cafeteria cashier, gate guard, and routing clerk. R. 19-20. The ALJ therefore concluded that Lewis was not disabled. R. 20. Lewis appealed the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on November 2, 2015. R. 1-3.


         Lewis argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the medical opinion of Dr. Wombwell, the orthopedic surgeon who served as her treating physician from February 2010 to January 2014, during which time he treated her on ten occasions. On January 24, 2014, Dr. Wombwell completed a checkbox Medical Source Statement describing Lewis's prognosis as “poor.” R. 571-74. Specifically, Dr. Wombwell found that Lewis “may require knee replacements, ” that she is unable to stand or walk during an 8 hour workday, that she can only occasionally lift 5-10 pounds, and that she is entirely unable to bend, squat, crawl, or climb. Id.

         The state agency physicians who reviewed Lewis's medical history and records in 2012 determined that Lewis could stand for 4 hours each day, occasionally bend and squat, and occasionally lift or carry up to 20 pounds. R. 55, 77. The ALJ relied upon the opinions of Dr. Wombwell and the state agency physicians to develop Lewis's RFC, giving only “limited weight” to the findings of Dr. Wombwell, but “significant weight to the assessments of the State agency consultants.” R. 17-18.

         Regarding Dr. Wombwell's opinion, the ALJ wrote:

The undersigned gives limited weight to Dr. Wombwell's assessments, as the limitations noted above are overly restrictive and inconsistent with and unsupported by the objective findings noted throughout the medical evidence of record, which indicate that the claimant has no instability of knee joints, her treatment has been limited to medication and injections as needed, she has 5/5 strength throughout her extremities, and she has nearly full extension of her knees. Additionally, as recently as May 2014, the claimant's primary care practitioner advised her to do activity as tolerated.

Id. The ALJ further credited the opinions of the state agency medical consultants because they were “consistent with and supported by the evidence of ...

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