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Trish v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

January 26, 2018

ANGELA TRISH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          David J. Novak United States Magistrate Judge

         On 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.

         Plaintiff 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.[1] 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.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On 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.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In 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 Cir. 2005)).

         In 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 Cir. 1987).

         SSA 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).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On 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 15-27.)

         The ALJ 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.)

         To 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.)

         At step 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.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, 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 his decision.

         1. The ALJ Did Not Err in Affording Dr. Hrncir's ...


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