United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
JAMIE L. ROWLETT, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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. §§ 4l6(i) and 423, and 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 conclusion that plaintiff
failed to meet the requirements for entitlement to benefits
under the Act. 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, Jamie L. Rowlett, was born on January 20, 1980,
and eventually completed the tenth grade in school. Mr.
Rowlett has worked as a roofer, a forklift driver, and a pipe
fitter. He last worked on a regular and sustained basis in
2011. On August 20, 2012, Mr. Rowlett filed applications for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income benefits. Mr. Rowlett alleged disability based on
chronic lower back pain; pain in his shoulders, legs, rotator
cuff, left knee, and left foot; fatigue and leg pain
resulting from his diagnosis of hepatitis C; and severe
anxiety. He now maintains that he has remained disabled to
the present time. The record reveals that Mr. Rowlett met the
insured status requirements of the Act at all times covered
by the final decision of the Commissioner. See,
gen., 42 U.S.C §§ 4l6(i) and 423(a).
Rowlett's applications were denied upon initial
consideration and reconsideration. He then requested and
received a de novo hearing and review before an
Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated March 25, 2015,
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. Rowlett has not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since November 19, 2011, and
that he suffers from several severe impairments including
lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, hepatitis C, and
obesity. Because of these impairments, the Law Judge
determined that Mr. Rowlett is disabled for all of his past
relevant work roles. Nevertheless, the Law Judge ruled that
Mr. Rowlett retains sufficient functional capacity for a
limited range of light work activities. The Law Judge
assessed Mr. Rowlett's residual functional capacity as
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform a range of light work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant
can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently; stand or walk, with normal breaks, no more than
six hours in an eight-hour workday; and sit, with normal
breaks, no more than six hours in an eight-hour workday. The
claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. In addition, the claimant
should avoid extremely cold temperatures, excess humidity and
pulmonary irritants, hazardous machinery, unprotected
heights, climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and working
on vibrating surfaces.
(Tr. 19). Given such a residual functional capacity, and
after considering Mr. Rowlett's age, education, and prior
work experience, as well as the testimony of a vocational
expert, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains the
capacity to perform several specific light work roles
existing in significant number in the national economy. (Tr.
26-28). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that Mr. Rowlett
did not become disabled at any time prior to the date of the
Law Judge's opinion, and that he is not entitled to
either disability insurance benefits or supplemental security
income benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and
416.920(g). 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
available administrative remedies, Mr. Rowlett has now
appealed to this court.
the 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
l382c(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. Mr. Rowlett has a history
of treatment for lower back pain following back surgery in
2008. (Tr. 36, 298). Treatment notes indicate that several
days after reporting his post-surgery back pain, he returned
to the emergency room for additional pain medicine,
exhibiting '"highly suspicious drug seeking
behavior.'" (Tr. 298). Physical examinations since
the onset date in November 2011 have shown some signs of
decreased sensation and tenderness in Mr. Rowlett's spine
and left leg, but have also shown that Mr. Rowlett has
maintained his reflexes and motor strength. (Tr. 285, 353).
X-ray imaging from 2012 and 2013 indicates mild degenerative
changes in Mr. Rowlett's spine at the L4-5 and L5-Sl.
(Tr. 385, 487, 490).
Rowlett was diagnosed with lumbar spine degenerative disc
disease and referred to pain management providers for
treatment. Mr. Rowlett reported that he used pain medications
to "'knock the edge off so he [could] continue to
work" (Tr. 373), and to "carry out daily"
activities as well as "to participate and attend his
son's [sports] games" (Tr. 473). In February 2013,
Mr. Rowlett reported that his pain medication permitted him
to increase his physical activity. (Tr. 395). By the next
month, Mr. Rowlett reported that oxycodone alleviated some of
his pain, permitting him to be functional at home, but not
allowing him to be employed. (Tr. 399). That month, he also
received treatment for a wrist injury, which occurred while
playing in the snow. (Tr. 451). In April 2013, the pain
management clinic noted that Mr. Rowlett displayed
"aberrant drug behaviors, " including asking for
his medications early, purportedly because of plans to travel
out of town, and indicating that he did not wish to try other
interventions to manage his pain.. (Tr. 405). At the next
appointment, the treatment provider noted that Mr. Rowlett
had missed a random count of his pain pills. (Tr. 409).
addition to chronic back pain and degenerative disc disease,
Mr. Rowlett's medical record indicates that he also
experiences obesity; has been identified as a hepatitis C
carrier; and has a history of depression, anxiety, and
alcoholism. (Tr. 367, 516-17). The record does not contain
opinion evidence from Mr. Rowlett's treating physicians.
administrative hearing, plaintiff testified about his main
complaints, chronic back pain and degenerative disc disease.
He claimed that his back stiffens easily, impeding his
ability to sit for more than about thirty minutes at a time
before he has to stand, move around, or lie down. (Tr. 51).
He stated that he typically has to lie down four to five
times a day for ten minutes to two hours at a time. (Tr.
51-52). He testified that he has received treatment from a
pain management clinic, but was discharged for taking a pill
from an old prescription after he ran out of the medication
prescribed by the clinic. (Tr. 41). He now claims that he
wants to try interventions other than pain medication. (Tr.
Rowlett further testified that some of his leg pain, as well
as fatigue, is caused by his diagnosis as a hepatitis C
carrier and explained that he intended to begin treatment for
that condition soon after the administrative hearing. (Tr.
42). Next, plaintiff testified that he suffers from constant
pain in his shoulders as a result of a prior motor vehicle
accident. (Tr. 48). As to mental impairments, Mr. Rowlett
testified that he suffers from severe anxiety that hinders
his ability to interact with other people. (Tr. 52).
considering the above evidence in light of Mr. Rowlett's
education, work history, residual skills, and age, the Law
Judge determined that Mr. Rowlett was not disabled for light
forms of work activity at any time prior to the date of her
decision. (Tr. 27). The Law Judge tracked plaintiffs
extensive medical history, noting that the diagnostic studies
and clinical evaluations discussed above demonstrated only
mild abnormalities. Thus, the Law Judge determined that the
plaintiff had certain medical conditions that would
reasonably cause the symptoms that he claimed to experience,
but that those symptoms could not reasonably cause the level
of pain described by the plaintiff. (Tr. 24-25).
denying Mr. Rowlett's claim, the Law Judge also relied on
her determination that Mr. Rowlett has low credibility. (Tr.
25). The Law Judge observed that the medical record did not
contain any diagnosis related to Mr. Rowlett's claim of
shoulder pain and the clinical findings with respect to his
back pain only demonstrate mild results. (Tr. 25). Moreover,
the Law Judge found that Mr. Rowlett's behavior indicated
that he sought treatment for back pain with a secondary gain
in mind; namely, to obtain pain medications. (Tr. 25). Mr.
Rowlett did not follow up on multiple referrals and failed to
pursue any other intervention to treat his pain besides pain
medication. (Tr. 25). The Law Judge further noted that Mr.
Rowlett made inconsistent statements to treatment providers
about his mental impairments, drug abuse history, and his
ability to work after the alleged onset date. (Tr. 25). For
example, Mr. Rowlett denied any history of drug abuse, but
tested positive for methamphetamine during a drug screening.
(Tr. 25, 429). Additionally, Mr. Rowlett described
participating in daily activities ...