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Hartman v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017




         Plaintiff 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.

         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), 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).

         “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), 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.

         II. Procedural History

         Hartman 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.

         On June 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”)[1] to perform “medium” exertion[2] 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.

         On 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.

         On 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.”[3] 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.

         The ALJ 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 “medium” and “sedentary”[4] 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.

         III. Discussion

         On 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 ...

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