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Rowlett v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

JAMIE L. ROWLETT, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad, Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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).

         The 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).

         Mr. 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 follows:

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.

         While 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 Cir. 1962).

         After a 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).

         Mr. 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).

         In 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.

         At the 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. 50).

         Mr. 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).

         After 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).

         In 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 ...

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