United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge
October 26, 2012, Angela Lynn Trish ("Plaintiff) applied
for Social Security Child's Disability Benefits
("CDB") and for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") under the Social Security Act
("Act"), alleging a learning disability stemming
from her mental impairments, with an alleged onset date of
March 7, 1994. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written
decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request
for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final
decision of the Commissioner.
now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in:
(1) awarding only partial weight to the opinion of Elizabeth
Hrncir, Ph.D.; (2) failing to account for all of Plaintiff s
moderate limitations; and, (3) posing to the VE a
hypothetical question that failed to account for all of
Plaintiff s limitations. (Mem. in Supp. of PL's Mot. for
Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 15) at 3, 5,
6.) This matter now comes before the Court for a Report and
Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) on
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment,
rendering the matter ripe for review. For the reasons that follow,
the Court recommends that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 13) and Motion to Remand (ECF No. 14) be
DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF
No. 20) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the
Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
October 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for CDB and
an application for SSI. (R. at 78, 79.) In both applications,
Plaintiff alleged an onset date of March 7, 1994. (R. at 182,
188.) The SSA denied these claims initially on April 2, 2013,
and again upon reconsideration on November 13, 2013. (R. at
104, 109, 120, 127.) On September 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a
written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding
that she did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at
27.) On November 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's
decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to
review by this Court. (R. at 1-4.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a
court "will affirm the Social Security
Administration's disability determination 'when an
ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's
factual findings are supported by substantial
evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632,
634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm 'r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)).
Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less
than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant
evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to
support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d
470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Charter, 76 F.3d
585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Indeed, "the substantial
evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice
within which the decision makers can go either way, without
interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not
subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would
have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v.
Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx.. 264, 274 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting
Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir.
1988)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the
court must examine the record as a whole, but may not
"undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for
that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472
(quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th
considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the
record as a whole, the court must "take into account
whatever the record fairly detracts from its weight."
Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir.
1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B.,
340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as
to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports
the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless
of whether the court disagrees with such findings.
Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in
the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if
the ALJ has made an error of law, the court must reverse the
decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency
employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see
Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's
five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one,
the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step
two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical
impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration
requirements. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii),
416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine
whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment
listed in the regulations. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ
must assess the claimant's residual function capacity
("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant
can do despite her physical and mental limitations.
§§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ
assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given
her RFC. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the
claimant can perform any work existing in the national
economy. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
September 1, 2015, the ALJ held a video hearing during which
Plaintiff (represented by counsel), Plaintiffs mother, Terri
Morton, and a VE testified. (R. at 32-56.) On September 25,
2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at
followed the five-step evaluation process established by the
Act to analyze Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 16-26.) At
step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of
March 7, 1994. (R. at 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the severe impairment of mental retardation.
(R. at 17.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs
impairment did not meet or medically equal the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. (R. at 17-20.)
assess Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ considered the opinions of the
state agency psychologists - Joseph Leizer, Ph.D., and Dr.
Stephanie Fearer, Ph.D. - and consultative examiner, Dr.
Hrncir; Plaintiffs individualized education program
("IEP"); a psychoeducational evaluation prepared by
Mr. Gary Bennett; and, the statements provided by Plaintiff,
her mother and her sister. (R. at 22-25.) In assessing
Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that she could perform a full
range of work at all exertional levels, but with the
following non-exertional limitations: she could perform
simple, unskilled work on a sustained basis in a competitive
work environment with no more than occasional interaction
with the general public. (R. at 20.)
four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work.
(R. at 25.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy. (R. at 25.) Therefore, Plaintiff did not
qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 26.)
twenty-three years old at the time of this Report and
Recommendation, has never held a job. (R. at 58-59.) She
applied for Social Security Benefits, alleging disability
from a learning disability, with an alleged onset date of
March 7, 1994. (R. at 182, 188, 198.) First, Plaintiffs
appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred by finding
that Dr. Hrncir's opinion deserved only partial weight.
(Pl's Mem. at 3-5.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the RFC
assessment does not include all of her moderate limitations.
(PL's Mem. at 5-6.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the
hypothetical that the ALJ posed to the VE failed to account
for all of her limitations. (Pl's Mem. at 6-9.)
Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the hypothetical did not
account for her moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence or pace, nor her moderate difficulty completing a
normal workday and workweek without interruptions and an
unreasonable number and length of breaks. (PL's Mem. at
6-9.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in
The ALJ Did Not Err in Affording Dr. Hrncir's ...