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Hudgins v. Berryhill

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

February 10, 2018

MATTHEW JAMES HUDGINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Hon. Robert S. Ballou United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Matthew James Hudgins (“Hudgins”) filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) determining that he 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, Hudgins alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by asking a hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”) which did not account for Hudgins's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace and declining to give more weight to the opinion of consultative examiner Julia Ewen, M.D. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Hudgins' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 18), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 19).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Hudgins failed to demonstrate that he 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).

         CLAIM HISTORY

         Hudgins protectively filed for SSI and DIB on October 3, 2013, claiming that his disability began on July 3, 2012. R. 227-39. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 73-74, 121, 138. On April 12, 2016, ALJ Geraldine H. Page held an administrative hearing to consider Hudgins's disability claim. R. 35-67. Hudgins was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Hudgins and VE John Newman. Id.

         On May 25, 2016, the ALJ entered her decision analyzing Hudgins's claim under the familiar five-step process, [2] and denying his claim for disability. R. 18-31. The ALJ found that Hudgins suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, patella-femoral pain syndrome, depression, anxiety, borderline intellectual functioning, and a hearing disorder. R. 20. The ALJ further found that Hudgins retained the RFC to perform sedentary work, but he is restricted to occasionally pushing and pulling with the bilateral lower extremities, kneeling, crouching, stooping, balancing, and climbing ramps and stairs. However, the ALJ explained that Hudgins can never: crawl; climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; work on vibrating surfaces; work at unprotected heights; be exposed to hazardous machinery; and work around excessively loud background noise. R. 23. The ALJ further explained that Hudgins “can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in repetitive, unskilled work that involves only occasional interaction with the general public.” Id. The ALJ determined that Hudgins could not return to his past relevant work as a fast food worker and dishwasher, but that he could work as an assembler, packer, and inspector/tester/sorter. R. 31. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Hudgins was not disabled. Id.

         Hudgins appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, but his request for review was denied. R. 1. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Hudgins challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds: (1) the ALJ improperly relied upon the VE's testimony because the hypothetical question to the VE did not account for Hudgins's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace; and (2) the ALJ failed to give the most weight to Dr. Ewen, a consultative examiner. See Dkt. No. 18, at 1.

         Concentration, Persistence, and Pace

         Hudgins challenges the hypothetical question to the VE because it failed to account for all of his functional limitations. See id. at 9. Specifically, Hudgins asserts that the “hypothetical question was incomplete because the RFC does not account for [Hudgins's] ability to stay on task with respect to concentration, persistence, or pace. Further the ALJ failed to explain why this limitation does not affect [Hudgins's] ability to work.” Id. at 11. The ALJ must present to the VE a hypothetical question which accurately reflects a claimant's functional limitations. Otherwise, the VE cannot reliably testify to a claimant's work capacity. Here, the focus is on whether the RFC and subsequent hypothetical correctly reflected limitations Hudgins has in the areas of concentration, persistence, and pace.

         In Mascio v. Colvin, the Fourth Circuit held that an ALJ does not generally account for a claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace by restricting the claimant to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work. The court noted, “the ability to perform simple tasks differs from the ability to stay on task. Only the latter limitation would account for a claimant's limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace.” 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015); see also Sexton v. Colvin, 21 F.Supp.3d 639, 642-43 (W.D. Va. 2014) (citing Wiederholt v. Barnhart, 121 Fed.Appx. 833, 839 (10th Cir. 2005) (holding that a “limitation to simple, unskilled work does not necessarily” accommodate a person's difficulty in concentrating on or persisting in a task, or maintaining the pace required to complete a task)). In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit found that the ALJ did not explain why Mascio's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace did not translate into a limitation in his RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638. The court noted, however, that the ALJ may find that the concentration, persistence, or pace limitation would not affect Mascio's ability to work, in which case it would have been appropriate to exclude it from the hypothetical tendered to the vocational expert. Id.; see also Hutton v. Colvin, No. 2:14-cv-63, 2015 WL 3757204, at *3 (N.D. W.Va. June 16, 2015).

         Mascio does not broadly dictate that a claimant's moderate impairment in concentration, persistence, or pace always translates into a limitation in the RFC. Rather, Mascio underscores the ALJ's duty to adequately review the evidence and explain the decision, especially where, as the ALJ held in Mascio, a claimant's concentration, persistence, or pace limitation does not affect the ability to perform simple, unskilled work. See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638. The ALJ's responsibility to highlight the evidence of record that supports his conclusion was further emphasized in Monroe v. Colvin, where the court found that the ALJ must provide a sound basis for his ruling, including discussing what evidence he found credible and specifically apply the law to the record. 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016).

         The Mascio court relied upon Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., where the court rejected the argument that an ALJ generally accounts for a claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace by restricting the claimant to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work. 631 F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011). However, the Winschel court explained that:

when medical evidence demonstrates that a claimant can engage in simple, routine tasks or unskilled work despite limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace, courts have concluded that limiting the hypothetical to include only unskilled work sufficiently accounts for such limitations. Additionally, other circuits have held that hypothetical questions adequately account for a claimant's limitations in ...

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