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Bergdoll v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sandra Ann Bergdoll asks this Court to review the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). ECF No. 6. Having considered the administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the applicable law, I find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision.

         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); 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, a court reviewing the merits of the Commissioner's final decision 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); see also Riley v. Apfel, 88 F.Supp.2d 572, 576 (W.D. Va. 2000) (citing Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98- 100 (1991)).

         “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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(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). 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

         Bergdoll filed for DIB on December 14, 2012, alleging disability caused by left hip injury, right shoulder injury/pain, severe pain, lower back problems, constant pain, rheumatoid arthritis, body tremors, neck pain, and diabetes. Administrative Record (“R.”) 39-40, ECF No. 10. Bergdoll alleged onset of disability as October 27, 2011, at which time she was forty-one years old. R. 39. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied her claim at the initial, R. 39-51, and reconsideration stages, R. 52-67. On November 2, 2015, Bergdoll appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing before ALJ Mary Peltzer and testified about her impairments, past work, and daily activities. R. 12-37. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified about Bergdoll's past work and her ability to do other jobs in the national economy. R. 32-36.

         On January 19, 2016, ALJ Peltzer issued a written decision denying Bergdoll's DIB application. R. 78-93. The ALJ determined that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 27, 2011. R. 80. She then found that Bergdoll had severe impairments of psoriasis with psoriatic arthropathy, fibromyalgia, lumbar degenerative disc/joint disease, and obesity. Id. All other medical conditions were deemed non-severe. R. 80-82. None of these impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. R. 82. As to Bergdoll's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [1] ALJ Peltzer determined that she could perform sedentary work[2] as defined in the regulations, except that she could frequently balance; occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb stairs and ramps; never kneel, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently handle and finger; and never reach overhead with the right upper extremity. R. 83. She also required a static work environment where changes in task were infrequent and explained when they occurred. Id. Considering this RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Bergdoll could not perform her past relevant work as a hospital nurse or as a dental office nurse. R. 92. She could, however, perform other sedentary jobs, including telephone order clerk and inspector/grader, that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 92-93. Therefore, ALJ Peltzer concluded that Bergdoll was not disabled. R. 93. The Appeals Council denied Bergdoll's request for review, R. 1-4, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Bergdoll challenges ALJ Peltzer's RFC finding that she can use her hands to frequently handle and finger. Pl.'s Br. 3-5, ECF No. 14. Bergdoll specifically identifies the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, Matthew S. Hogenmiller, M.D., and her own statements regarding her manipulative limitations as support for her position. Id. Bergdoll contends that had the ALJ properly evaluated this evidence, it would have resulted in a finding that she could do no more than occasional handling and fingering. Id. at 4-5. Bergdoll asserts that this restriction would erode the occupational base and eliminate the jobs identified by the VE. Id. at 3-4.

         A. Facts

         Bergdoll has a history of chronic pain, including pain in her shoulders, arms, hands, neck, cervical spine, lower back, and throughout her various lower extremities. She treated with multiple specialists, was prescribed medications, and was referred to physical therapy and pain management. Because Bergdoll's argument primarily concerns her manipulative limitations of handling and fingering, the discussion of the medical record and her report of symptoms will focus on evidence related to those limitations.

         1.Relevant Medical Evidence

         Bergdoll was involved in a motor vehicle accident on October 27, 2011, R. 302-03, which she claimed exacerbated all her existing pain. Bergdoll was taken to the emergency room following the accident, and she reported back, neck, and left hip pain. R. 302. Bergdoll was discharged with analgesics. R. 303. On November 4, Bergdoll presented to John Marsh, M.D., regarding her pain following the motor vehicle accident. R. 418-21. The review of systems was positive for joint pain, joint swelling, and limb pain. R. 419. She had no extremity edema on physical examination. R. 420. She presented to the University of Virginia Hospital East (“UVA”) on November 11 with pain in her shoulder, neck, right knee, and ...

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