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Kelly v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia

March 30, 2017

Harrisonburg Division WILLOW KELLY, Plaintiff,


          Joel C. Hoppe United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Willow Kelly asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Having considered the administrative record, the parties' briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(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). 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

         Kelly filed for DIB on October 20, 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2006, at which time she was forty-three years old, caused by recurrence of chronic Lyme disease and co-infections; debilitating fatigue, exhaustion, and “air hunger”; joint and nerve pain in hips, hands, and feet (severe); stabbing pains and facial tic; insomnia and drenching night sweats; restless leg syndrome; depression and anxiety; dizziness, lightheadedness, and weakness; nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, and appetite and weight loss; blurred vision and large floater; and involuntary eye and head movements. Administrative Record (“R.”) 89-90, ECF No. 12. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied her claim at the initial, R. 89-103, and reconsideration, R. 105-17, stages. On March 27, 2015, Kelly appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing before ALJ H. Munday and testified about her impairments, past work, and daily activities. R. 42-88. A vocational expert also appeared and testified about Kelly's past work and her ability to do other jobs in the national economy. R. 81-87.

         On April 23, 2015, ALJ Munday issued a written decision denying Kelly's DIB application. R. 19-32. The ALJ determined that Kelly met the insured status requirements under DIB through December 31, 2011, her date last insured (“DLI”). R. 21. ALJ Munday focused her inquiry on whether Kelly was disabled between the alleged onset date and the DLI. R. 21, 32. She determined that Kelly had severe impairments of Lyme disease, osteoarthritis, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder, but found all of her other conditions, including her history of psoriasis and her throat issues, to be non-severe. R. 21-22. She found that none of these impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. R. 22-23. As to Kelly's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [1] ALJ Munday determined that she could perform light work[2] except that she required a sit/stand option every thirty minutes, if needed, while on task. R. 24. Additionally, she could frequently balance and stoop; occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb; frequently finger; occasionally be exposed to vibrations and hazardous conditions such as unprotected heights and moving machinery; frequently interact with the general public and supervisors; and perform simple, routine tasks. Id. Kelly could not perform any of her past relevant work. R. 31. She could, however, perform other light jobs, including non-postal mail clerk, marker, and counter clerk, that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 31-32. Therefore, ALJ Munday concluded that Kelly was not disabled from her alleged onset date of August 1, 2006, through her DLI of December 31, 2011. R. 32. The Appeals Council denied Kelly's request for review, R. 1-3, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Kelly initially asserted that ALJ Munday inadequately explained the basis for discounting her credibility concerning the description of her symptoms, improperly relied on the six-year gap between the alleged onset date and filing for DIB to question her credibility, and erroneously disregarded her testimony that she pursued alternative medical care during much of the relevant period. Pl. Br. 5-22, ECF No. 15. At oral argument before this Court, however, she withdrew these arguments and opted to proceed on the sole basis that the ALJ erred by not considering the medical evidence in the record from after her DLI, which she contends shows she suffered from disabling symptoms of Lyme disease as of November 2011. Pl. Suppl. Br. 1, ECF No. 24. For the following reasons, I find that Kelly's argument is not persuasive.

         A. Kelly's Submissions and Testimony

         During the administrative hearing, Kelly testified about her impairments and functioning during the relevant period. After Kelly underwent antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease in 2000 in California, a doctor told her she would never fully recover. R. 56. Kelly subsequently moved to Virginia and worked a variety of jobs. R. 46-50. When she could no longer work, she became overwhelmed with depression. R. 47-48. Near the end of her employment with an attorney, she began seeking out alternative medicine for her ailments, trying tinctures and herbs because the antibiotics were not working. R. 58-59. She also tried chiropractic treatment, holistic medicine, massage, diet changes, over-the-counter medication, ice and heat, and baths. R. 59-60. Throughout this time, she had pain in her hands, legs, hips, and feet, but not until 2011 when she started to experience sharp joint and nerve pain did she seek conventional medical treatment in the form of narcotic therapy, R. 59, 61-62. Kelly also received a steroid injection in September 2011, which she described as a “really weird experience, ” as she had a bad reaction to the shot, including inflammation and searing pain down her leg. R. 74.

         As to her activities during this time, Kelly would get out of bed and get dressed, but then would lie down for about an hour. R. 62. On a regular day, she would lie down three more times, but on a bad day she would lie down once or twice and not be able to get back up. R. 63. She also worked as a workshop facilitator, managing the events and teaching emotional healing all over the country, but mostly on the West Coast, for about eight to nine weeks per year. R. 50-51. Although these trips involved extensive travel, Kelly managed by flying out early to give herself a few days to recover before starting; when returning home, however, she needed anywhere from one to three weeks to recover fully, depending on the length of the trip. R. 60. She also used a lot of pain medication, stretching, and an upright sleeper to make it through the flights. R. 78-79. She last conducted workshops in 2009, although she volunteered for one in 2014 and had to direct everything from bed. R. 67-68. Kelly also infrequently performed as a singer as a hobby despite having performance anxiety, but stopped in 2009. R. 52, 68-69. She spent most of her time “horizontal” and never did anything as a single individual, always requiring a partner ...

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