United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
EDWARD W. HARTMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
C. HOPPE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Edward W. Hartman asks this Court to review the Commissioner
of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final
decision denying his applications for disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social
Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§
401-434, 1381-1383f. The case is before me by the
parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). ECF No.
6. Having considered the administrative record, the
parties' briefs and oral arguments, and the applicable
law, I find that the Commissioner's final decision is
supported by substantial evidence and must be affirmed.
Standard of Review
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), 1383(c)(3); 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).
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).
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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); accord 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(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), 416.920(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.
filed for DIB on November 16, 2010, and for SSI on January
18, 2011. Administrative Record (“R.”) 18, ECF
No. 10. In June 2008, Hartman crashed his All-Terrain Vehicle
(“ATV”) and suffered subarachnoid hemorrhage
because of a ruptured aneurysm, which the attending physician
termed “a slight brain injury.” R. 377. After
surgery to clip the ruptured aneurysm, Hartman returned to
work at a turkey farm until May 19, 2010. R. 234, 297.
Hartman alleges that he has been disabled since that time
because of the subarachnoid hemorrhage, back and hip pain,
chronic headaches, and short-term memory and anger issues.
See R. 178, 182, 230, 234. The Commissioner twice
rejected Hartman's applications in 2011. R. 18.
13, 2012, Hartman appeared with counsel at a hearing before
ALJ Drew Swank. R. 34-62. That July, ALJ Swank issued a
written opinion finding that Hartman retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
“medium” exertion work so long as he was
“further limited to simple, unskilled work” and
avoided “exposure to concentrated hazards.” R.
22. Based on this RFC, ALJ Swank concluded that Hartman was
not disabled because he could return to his old job as
“a turkey farm helper” or, alternatively, he
could perform a wide range of “unskilled medium”
occupations available in the national economy. R. 27-28.
appeal to this Court, the undersigned Magistrate Judge
recommended that the Commissioner's final decision be
reversed because the restriction to “simple, unskilled
work” in the RFC did not necessarily reflect ALJ
Swank's findings that Hartman had “moderate”
limitations maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace,
and could concentrate for two-hour segments throughout an
eight-hour workday. See Hartman v. Colvin,
5:13cv109, 2015 WL 877360, at *7-8 (W.D. Va. Jan. 15, 2015).
The District Court adopted that recommendation and remanded
Hartman's case for further administrative proceedings.
Id. at *1. On remand, the Appeals Council vacated
ALJ Swank's decision and instructed a different ALJ to
hold a hearing and issue a new decision based on all the
evidence in the current record. See R. 619, 732-33.
January 6, 2016, Hartman appeared with counsel for a hearing
before ALJ R. Neely Owen. See R. 645-85. Hartman,
his longtime girlfriend, a vocational expert
(“VE”), and an impartial clinical psychologist
all testified at the hearing. See R. 619, 645-85.
ALJ Owen issued an unfavorable decision on March 3, 2016. R.
619-37. He found that Hartman had “the following severe
impairments: a central nervous system disorder, a major
depressive disorder, mild cognitive disorder, and a pain
disorder.” R. 621. None of these impairments met or
medically equaled one of the presumptively disabling
impairments listed in the Act's regulations. R. 622-23.
next evaluated Hartman's RFC based on all of his
medically determinable impairments. See R. 624-35.
He determined that Hartman could physically perform
“medium work, ” but must be limited to
“simple, repetitive, routine, one or two-step tasks in
a low stress environment involving a slow pace with no quotas
. . . and minimal public contact.” R. 624. The ALJ
noted that this RFC ruled out Hartman's return to all of
his past relevant work, including the job on the turkey farm.
R. 635. Finally, relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ
concluded that Hartman had not been disabled after May 19,
2010, because he still could perform several
“sedentary” occupations that were available
nationally and in Virginia, such as hospital cleaner,
assembler, and stacker or packer. R. 636; see R.
681-83. The Appeals Council denied Hartman's request to
review that decision, R. 616-18, and this appeal followed.
appeal, Hartman asks the Court to review whether “the
ALJ's conclusion adequately consider[s] Mr. Hartman's
pain.” Pl.'s Br. 2. See generally Id. at
2-6. His argument focuses on ALJ Owen's finding that,
although Hartman's “medically determinable
impairments could reasonably be expected to cause” his
alleged pain and other symptoms, Hartman's
“statements, and those of his girlfriend and former
supervisor, concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects” of those alleged symptoms were
“not entirely credible in light of the longitudinal
medical record as a whole, ” R. 627; see
Pl.'s Br. 3-5; R. 652-58, 663-67, 683-84. In particular,
Hartman objects that the ALJ's adverse credibility
determination is not supported by substantial evidence
because he “disregard[ed] treating physicians'
documentation of pain and exacerbating psychological factors,
” Pl.'s Br. 5, and erroneously found that
Hartman's “pain naturally arising from his
disorders” was “adequately controlled by
medication and ...