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King v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

September 19, 2017

ANTHONY D. KING, pro se Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          David J. Novak United Stales Magistrate Judge.

         On October 31, 2012, Anthony D. King ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from shoulder pain and diabetes mellitus, with an alleged onset date of December 31, 2008. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in denying Plaintiff his right to cross-examination and that the Appeals Council erred in not considering his new condition. (Mem. in Supp. of Pl/s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 20) at 3-4; Compl. (ECF No. 3) at 1-2.) This matter now comes before the Court by consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), on the parlies' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter ripe for review.[2] For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18), GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 27) and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 31, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI with an alleged onset date of December 31, 2008. (R. at 199-216.) The SSA denied these claims initially on February 27, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on August 22, 2013. (R. at 66-83, 86-105.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on November 12.2014. (R. at 24, 133-34.) On February 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act, because he could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 10-19.) On June 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-3.) At Plaintiffs request, the Court heard oral argument on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment on February 1, 2017. (Tr. of Oral Arg. ("Tr.") (ECF No. 31).)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination 'when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings arc supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astme, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(h). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step Five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On November 12, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (then-represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 24-65.) On February 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 10-19.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Social Security Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 11-19). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (R. at 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) bony spurring along the under surface of the distal clavicle of both shoulders and (2) diabetes mellitus. (R. at 13.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 13-14.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work with additional limitations. (R. at 14-17.) Specifically, Plaintiff could never reach overhead on his right side, but he could occasionally reach overhead on his left side. (R. at 14.) Plaintiff could not climb ladders or scaffolds; tolerate workplace hazards including moving machinery, unprotected heights or exposure to excessive heat; or, perform work that required driving. (R. at 14.) He could only occasionally crawl or balance. (R. at 14.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a laborer. (R. at 17-18.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 18-19.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, fifty-six years old at the time of this Opinion, previously worked as a laborer. (R. at 200, 255.) He applied for Social Security Benefits, alleging disability from diabetes and broken shoulders with an alleged onset date of December 31, 2008. (R. at 248.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in denying Plaintiff his right to cross-examination and that the Appeals Council erred in not considering his new conditions. (Pl.'s Mem. at 3-4; Compl. at 1-2.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in her decision.

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Assignment of SubstantialWeight to the Medical ...


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