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Brown v. Berryhill

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

January 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Kathy Yvette Brown (“Brown”) filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) determining that she was not disabled and therefore not eligible for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Specifically, Brown alleges that the ALJ failed to properly assess her impairments on a function-by-function basis, and failed to provide sufficient reasons for the credibility analysis. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision as a whole. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Brown's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 13), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Dkt. No. 15).


         This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion that Brown failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[1] Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).


         Brown filed for DIB and SSI on August 7, 2012, claiming that her disability began on June 1, 2012.[2] Administrative Record, hereinafter “R.” 22. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 78-119. On June 20, 2014, ALJ Robert Habermann held a hearing to consider Brown's disability claim. R. 35-77. Brown was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Brown and vocational expert Gerald Wells. Id.

         On October 8, 2014, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Brown's claim under the familiar five-step process, [3] and denying Brown's claim for benefits. R. 22-30. The ALJ found that Brown suffered from the severe impairments of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). R. 25. The ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. Id. The ALJ further found that Brown had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except that she can lift and/or carry [twenty pounds][4] occasionally and frequently; can sit, stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and she is limited to unskilled work. Id. The ALJ determined that Brown is capable of performing her past relevant work as a housekeeper, and thus she is not disabled. R. 29-30.

         Brown requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and on July 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Brown's request for review. R. 1-5. This appeal followed.


         Medical and Opinion Evidence

         Brown's treatment history is fairly conservative. Before the relevant period, [5] in July and November of 2011, Brown visited New Horizons Healthcare and was assessed with diabetes mellitus type 2 uncontrolled, hypertension, COPD, GERD, hyperlipidemia, depression, and anxiety. R. 319, 320, 322-23. She received similar assessments in March 2012 and July 2012. R. 311-12, 316. At the July 2012 appointment, no changes were made to Brown's medications and her physical examination was unremarkable except for a blood test suggesting elevated blood sugar (high “HbA1C”). R. 312.

         Brown next received treatment in October 2012 when she went to Roanoke Memorial Hospital after suffering a fall. R. 352-70. Robert Salters, M.D., noted that Brown reported a history of loss of consciousness and falls since January 2012. R. 352. Brown denied concern with this issue, seeking instead treatment for her left wrist and elbow pain. Id. X-rays of Brown's left elbow and wrist were unremarkable, showing no fracture or acute process. R. 357. The examining physician found that Brown had tachycardia, and suffered a syncopal episode when she fell. She had tenderness, but normal range of motion, no edema, and a normal gait. R. 354. Brown was diagnosed with abrasions and prescribed Motrin. R. 357-58. A few days later, at a follow-up appointment at Horizon Behavioral Health, Brown was again positive for depression and anxiety and assessed with diabetes mellitus type 2 uncontrolled, hypertension, COPD, GERD, and hyperlipidemia. R. 340-41. Brown received the same assessment on January 17, 2013. R. 338. At this January visit, Brown did not have any new complaints about physical symptoms and a physical examination was unremarkable. R. 337-39.

         On January 22, 2013, Brown reported to Roanoke Memorial Hospital complaining of moderate intermittent chest pain. R. 371. The pain was worse when lying down, but better when sitting. Id. Brown reported that the episodes of pain last only a few seconds and occur six-to-seven times per day. Id. As Brown's chest X-rays showed no acute abnormality, she was assessed with atypical chest pain and prescribed medication for heartburn. R. 374-77, 475. About four months later, in May 2013, Brown reported to New Horizons Healthcare for a follow-up appointment for her diabetes. R. 396. She complained of digestive issues and was assessed with COPD, hypertension, diabetes mellitus type 2 - uncontrolled, irritable bowel syndrome, and callus. R. 397. Brown received medication for her irritable bowel syndrome. Id.

         A month later, on June 27, 2013, Brown went to the emergency department at Roanoke Memorial Hospital complaining of moderate left-sided chest pain and numbness in her left arm. R. 415. Examination revealed that Brown was not in distress and she was assessed with chest pain and dehydration. R. 419. Brown received Motrin and intravenous fluids. Id. Two months later, Brown reported again to the emergency department, this time complaining of abdominal pain. R. 438. Brown was positive for nausea, abdominal tenderness and pain, and ...

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