United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge
has filed this action challenging the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claims for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42
U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and 42 42 U.S.C. §
1381 et seq., respectively. Jurisdiction of this court is
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. §
1383(c)(3). This court's review is limited to a
determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to
support the Commissioner's decision. Because the
plaintiff has abandoned his claim for disability insurance
benefits, the only issue presently before the court is
whether substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's
conclusion that the plaintiff failed to meet the requirements
for entitlement to supplemental security income
benefits. If such substantial evidence exists, the
final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws
v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated
briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such
relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as
might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a
reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971).
plaintiff, Terry Glenn Carter, was born on May 23, 1970, and
eventually completed his high school education. Mr. Carter
has worked as a janitor and a fast food worker. He last
worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2009. On May 30,
2013, Mr. Carter filed applications for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Mr.
Carter alleged disability based on lower back pain; injury to
his hands, knees, and shoulders; diabetes; headaches; a
burning sensation in his right arm; and pain in his feet and
ankles. He now s maintains that he has remained
disabled to the present time. Mr. Carter's applications
were denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration.
Mr. Carter then requested and received a de novo
hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge.
opinion dated February 11, 2016, the Law Judge applied the
five-step sequential process for evaluating disability
claims. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and
416.920. The Law Judge found that Mr. Carter has not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2009, and
that he suffers from severe impairments including
degenerative disc disease, cervical radiculopathy, carpal
tunnel syndrome, and obesity. The Law Judge then assessed Mr.
Carter's residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that
the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except that the claimant can only occasionally perform
handling and fingering bilaterally.
(Tr. 40). Given this residual functional capacity, and after
considering Mr. Carter's age, education, and prior work
experience, as well as the testimony of a vocational expert,
the Law Judge determined that Mr. Carter could not perform
any past relevant work, but retained sufficient functional
capacity to perform certain light work roles existing in
significant number in the national economy. (Tr. 44).
Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that Mr. Carter has not
been disabled since 2009, is not presently disabled, and is
not entitled to either disability insurance benefits or
supplemental security income benefits. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 4040.1520(f) and 416.920(f). The Law Judge's
opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner
by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council.
Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Mr. Carter has
now appealed to this court.
trie plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of
employment, the crucial factual determination is whether the
plaintiff is disabled for all forms of substantial gainful
employment. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2) and
1382c(a). There are four elements of proof which must be
considered in making such an analysis. These elements are
summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and
clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of
treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical
manifestations of impairments, as described through a
claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's
education, vocational history, residual skills, and age.
Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir.
1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th
review of the record in this case, the court is constrained
to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is
supported by substantial evidence. The Law Judge's
opinion reflects a thorough evaluation of Mr. Carter's
medical records, the opinions of physicians who examined Mr.
Carter, Mr. Carter's testimony about impairments, and Mr.
medical record reveals that Mr. Carter has received treatment
from the Pulaski Free Clinic since 2009. (Tr. 305). The Law
Judge tracked Mr. Carter's care at the Free Clinic,
noting that Mr. Carter rarely sought care and, when he did,
did not show any signs of significant abnormalities. Mr.
Carter first complained of hand and shoulder pain in December
2011, but the medical records from that visit do not indicate
any significant abnormalities. (Tr. 42, 304). Indeed, at a
July 2012 visit, Mr. Carter exhibited full muscle strength,
intact cranial nerves, and normal reflexes. (Tr. 42, 303).
The Free Clinic first recorded objective evidence of an
injury in January 2014 when an X-ray showed mild diffuse
degenerative arthritic changes in Mr. Carter's back that
supported a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 42,
355). However, a physical examination of Mr. Carter at that
time revealed that the mild objective abnormality did not
have any significant effect on Mr. Carter's abilities.
(Tr. 43-43, 332).
denying Mr. Carter's claim, the Law Judge also relied on
a consultative physical evaluation performed by neurologist
Dr. Rollin J. Hawley in October 2015. (Tr. 43, 356-57). Based
on his review of Mr. Carter's medical history, as well as
his own clinical findings from nerve conduction studies and
an electromyography ("EMG") of Mr. Carter's
upper extremities, Dr. Hawley diagnosed Mr. Carter with
carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic cervical radiculopathy that
resulted in numbness to Mr. Carter's left middle through
little fingers, and diabetes mellitus. (Tr. 357). After
observing that Mr. Carter was morbidly obese, Dr. Hawley
advised Mr. Carter to lose weight and maintain control of his
diabetes. (Tr. 356-57). Dr. Hawley recommended that Mr.
Carter wear wrist splints at night or when tempted to flex
his wrists, and noted that surgery was a possible treatment
if less invasive treatments failed to relieve the pain. (Tr.
357). Finally, Dr. Hawley recommended conservative care of
Mr. Carter's cervical spine. (Tr. 357).
Judge also gave great weight to the opinion of Mr.
Carter's treating physician, Dr. Carl E. Hanks, that Mr.
Carter could only occasionally lift 20 pounds, handle, or
finger. (Tr. 43). On the other hand, the Law Judge gave less
weight to other findings included on a physical assessment
form completed by Dr. Hanks, based on the determination that
the evaluation of plaintiffs stamina and capacity for sitting
and standing were more subjective, and not fully supported by
clinical assessments. (Tr. 43).
Judge similarly gave limited weight to the opinion of a state
agency medical consultant that Mr. Carter had no severe
impairments and the opinion of another state agency medical
consultant that Mr. Carter could perform medium work. (Tr.
43-44). The Law Judge explained that giving limited weight to
those opinions favored Mr. Carter.
the Law Judge also did not fully credit the subjective
complaints of Mr. Carter. Although Mr. Carter testified that
he experienced pain in his hands, neck, back, and feet, the
record does not contain any objective evidence of injury to
Mr. Carter's lower extremities. Mr. Carter also testified
that he stopped working in 2009 because a supervisor fired
him following a disagreement, that he would have continued to
work had he not been fired, and that he searched for jobs
until he filed for disability benefits. (Tr. 66-67). The Law
Judge viewed Mr. Carter's credibility as limited because
Mr. Carter initially sought disability benefits as of the
date that he stopped working despite testifying that he
stopped working because he was fired.
the Law Judge considered Mr. Carter's characteristics and
the opinion of the vocational expert. The Law Judge asked the
vocational expert about the availability of jobs for a
hypothetical individual of Mr. Carter's age and
experience who could lift and carry no more than 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and only occasionally
handle and finger. (Tr. 57). The vocational expert testified
that such an individual could not perform Mr. Carter's