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Widener v. Berryhill

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

February 9, 2018

THOMAS E. WIDENER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          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). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues now before the court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, or whether there is "good cause" to necessitate remanding the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The plaintiff, Thomas Erick Widener, was born on June 26, 1977, and eventually completed the eleventh grade in school. Mr. Widener has worked as a grocery picker, furniture mover, and construction worker. He last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2012. On April 24, 2014, Mr. Widener filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Mr. Widener alleged disability based on hypochondria, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, pain in his left elbow and neck, and headaches. He now maintains that he has remained disabled to the present time. As to his application for disability insurance benefits, the record reveals that Mr. Widener met the insured status requirements of the Act at all relevant times covered by the Commissioner's decision. See, gen., 42 U.S.C §§ 4l6(i) and 423(a).

         Mr. Widener'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 November 29, 2016, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff is not disabled. The Law Judge found that Mr. Widener suffers from several severe impairments, including anxiety and a history of substance abuse. (Tr. 16). Because of these impairments, the Law Judge ruled that plaintiff is disabled for all of his past relevant work roles. (Tr. 25). However, the Law Judge held that Mr. Widener retains sufficient functional capacity for a full range of work at all exertional levels subject to certain non-exertional limitations. The Law Judge assessed Mr. Widener'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 full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is limited to the performance of simple, routine, tasks. The claimant should not work with the general public and should not be required to have more than occasional interaction with co-workers or supervisors.

(Tr. 18). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering Mr. Widener's age, education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge held that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity to perform several specific work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (Tr. 26). Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that Mr. Widener is not disabled, and that he is not entitled to benefits under either federal program. See, gen., 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. Widener 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 unable to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. The court believes that the Commissioner reasonably concluded that plaintiff retains sufficient physical capacity to engage in a full range of exertional activities. However, with regard to non-exertional limitations, the court must conclude that the Law Judge did not account for all of the manifestations of plaintiff s mental conditions in the hypothetical questions put to the vocational expert. Thus, the court finds "good cause" for remand of this case to the Commissioner so that all of plaintiff s work-related limitations can be considered in assessing his capacity for other work roles.

         The medical record confirms that Mr. Widener has reported symptoms of anxiety to his treating physicians. However, Mr. Widener did not receive an evaluation or treatment from a trained psychologist before applying for benefits. Consequently, the state agency referred Mr. Widener to a psychological consultant, Dr. Marvin A. Gardner, Jr., who evaluated Mr. Widener on April 20, 2016. Dr. Gardner determined that Mr. Widener's anxiety, panic disorder, and hypochondriasis would likely cause him to miss more than four days of work per month and that Mr. Widener experiences a marked impairment of concentration, persistence, or pace that prevents him from performing work activities on a consistent basis. (Tr. 507-08). The Law Judge gave "little weight" to Dr. Gardner's opinion, determining that the report relied on Mr. Widener's subjective complaints and abnormal presentation at a one-time evaluation, neither of which the Law Judge found to be consistent with the medical record as a whole. (Tr. 23). The Law Judge also accorded "little weight" to the opinions of two non-examining state agency psychologists, who opined that Mr. Widener only experiences mild limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 23). As with Dr. Gardner's opinion, the Law Judge concluded that the non-examining psychologists' opinions were inconsistent with Mr. Widener's medical record. The Law Judge ultimately determined that Mr. Widener experiences moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace. In this context, the Law Judge commented as follows:

With regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties. The claimant usually did not complain of significant problems with concentration, persistence, or pace. Likewise, treating practitioners did not observe and record such abnormalities. The claimant had some significant mental status abnormalities at his one consultative evaluation. However, this is a significant anomaly compared to his many appointments with treating practitioners.

(Tr. 17).

         The difficulty in this case is that in formulating a hypothetical question for the vocational expert, the Law Judge did not attempt to account for his conclusion that Mr. Widener experiences moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. The Law Judge asked the vocational expert only to consider the following non-exertional limitations: that Mr. Widener is limited to simple, routine tasks involving no interaction with the general public and little to no interaction with coworkers or supervisors. (Tr. 66-68). While the Law Judge adopted the vocational expert's opinion that plaintiff can perform work as an assembler, packer, or inspector, the vocational expert was not asked to consider the significance of moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace in the performance of such jobs, all of which would seemingly require sustained attention and concentration. Nevertheless, the Law Judge relied on the testimony of the vocational expert in determining that Mr. Widener retains sufficient functional capacity for several specific work roles existing in significant number in the national economy.

         In Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47 (4th Cir. 1989), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit commented as follows:

The purpose of bringing in a vocational expert is to assist the ALJ in determining whether there is work available in the national economy which this particular claimant can perform. In order for a vocational expert's opinion to be relevant or helpful, it must be based upon a consideration of all other evidence in the record, and it must be in response to ...

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