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White v. Berryhill

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

September 19, 2017

WILLIAM WHITE, JR., pro se Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge.

         On August 15, 2012, William White, Jr. ("Plaintiff) protectively filed for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from arthritis in both knees, diabetes, high blood pressure and gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), with an alleged onset date of January 1, 2012. (R. at 242-46.) 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 proceeding pro se, seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in assessing his residual functional capacity ("RFC"), in concluding that he could perform work existing in the national economy, and that additional evidence not previously submitted to the Agency warrants remand. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 13) 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 parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter ripe for review.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13), GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 15, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI with an alleged onset date of January 1, 2012. (R. at 207-21, 242.) The SSA denied these claims initially on January 29, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on November 7, 2013. (R. at 92-109, 112-32.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on January 23, 2015. (R. at 25, 151.) On April 16, 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 make successful adjustments to jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 9-19.) Specifically, Plaintiff could perform the duties of a production inspector and information clerk. (R. at 18.) On August 11, 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.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a court "will affirm the [SSA]'s disability determination 'when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence."' Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm V 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. Aslrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Indeed, "the substantial evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v. Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 267 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)). 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 SSA 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 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's work activity. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC, accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite his physical and mental limitations. § 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform his past work given his RFC. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On January 23, 2015, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (then-represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 25-78.) On April 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 9-19.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Social Security Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 10-11.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date. (R. at 11.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease ("DJD") of the right knee, history of open reduction internal fixation ("ORIF") of the right tibia with hardware replacement, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. (R. at 11.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments in the listings. (R. at 12.)

         In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work with additional limitations. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff could only occasionally lift, carry, push and pull twenty pounds and ten pounds frequently. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff could stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit six or more hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 13.) He could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 13.) Additionally, Plaintiff could only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 13.) He could not tolerate exposure to extreme heat or cold. (R. at 13.) Furthermore, he would need to alternate between sitting and standing every thirty minutes while remaining on task. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff required the use of a cane. (R. at 13.) Finally, Plaintiff could understand, remember and carry out simple and routine work-related instructions, along with concentrating for periods of two hours on work-related tasks before requiring a break. (R. at 13.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (R. at 17.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 18.) Specifically, Plaintiff could work as a production inspector and information clerk. (R. at 18.) Therefore, he did not qualify as disabled. (R. at 19.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, fifty years old at the time of this Opinion, previously worked as a warehouse supervisor and a flagman. (R. at 17, 242, 247.) He applied for Social Security benefits, alleging disability from arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and GERD, with an alleged onset date of January 1, 2012. (R. at 242, 246.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC and in finding that he could perform work that existed in the national economy. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Additionally, Plaintiff claims that updated records that he submitted to the Court prove his disability. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1-2.) Defendant responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. and Br. in Supp. Thereof ("Def.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 15) at 12.) For the reasons that follow, the ALJ did not err in his decision.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Assessing Plaintiffs RFC.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that his knee pain limits him more than the RFC reflects. (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Defendant responds that ...


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