United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge.
Virginia Alease Fears (“Fears”) 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. §§ 402(d),
1381-1383f. Specifically, Fears alleges that the ALJ erred by
(1) holding a hearing in her absence; (2) failing to itemize
her various mental functions when crafting her residual
functional capacity (“RFC”); (3) failing to
account for her moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace; (4) failing to give more weight to the
opinion of consultative examiner Franklin E. Russell, Ph.D.;
and (5) failing to consider her obesity in combination with
her asthma and left knee ailments. I find that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's decision on all grounds.
Accordingly, I RECOMMEND GRANTING the
Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 14), and
DENYING Fears's motion for summary
judgment (Dkt. 12).
Court limits its review to a determination of whether
substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's
conclusion that Fears failed to demonstrate that she was
disabled under the Act. 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).
protectively filed for SSI and DIB on January 3, 2012,
claiming that her disability began on November 11, 2011. R.
312-22. The Commissioner denied the application at the
initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review.
R. 73, 82, 96, 108. On March 31, 2015, ALJ Marc Mates held an
administrative hearing to consider Fears's disability
claim. R. 32-43. Fears was incarcerated at the time of the
hearing, but appeared through her attorney. R. 34. Vocational
expert Gerald K. Wells testified at the hearing. R. 36-41.
26, 2015, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Fears's
claim under the familiar five-step process,  and denying
Fears's claim for disability. R. 10-24. The ALJ found
that Fears suffered from the severe impairments of:
“left knee lateral meniscus tear and chondromalacia,
diabetes mellitus, hypertension, asthma, obesity, borderline
intellectual functioning, mood disorder, and anxiety
disorder.” R. 13. The ALJ further found that Fears
retained the RFC to perform a range of light work, but she is
restricted to lifting and carrying ten pounds frequently,
lifting and carrying twenty pounds occasionally, standing
and/or walking for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and
sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday. R. 15. The
ALJ explained that Fears can never climb ladders, scaffolds,
or ropes; can never crawl; and can never be exposed to
extreme temperatures, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dust,
gases, poor ventilation, vibration, and hazards (such as
unprotected heights or hazardous moving machinery). R. 15-16.
The ALJ further found that Fears can occasionally balance and
stoop as well as push and pull with her left leg. R. 15.
Finally, the ALJ explained that Fears can “perform
simple, routine tasks; sustain concentration toward such
tasks for 2-hour segments; interact as needed with
coworkers/supervisors, with only occasional public contact;
and respond appropriately to change in a routine work
setting.” R. 16.
determined that Fears could not return to her past relevant
work as a fast food worker, store clerk, and sewing machine
operator, but that she could work at jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy, such as a
cafeteria attendant or a cleaner. R. 22-23. Thus, the ALJ
concluded that Fears was not disabled. R. 24. Fears appealed
the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, but her
request for review was denied. R. 1-3. This appeal followed.
challenges the ALJ's decision on five grounds: (1) the
ALJ violated her rights to procedural due process in holding
the administrative hearing in her absence; (2) the ALJ failed
to conduct a “more detailed assessment” required
by SSR 96-8p by itemizing Fears's various mental
functions; (3) the ALJ failed to account for Fears's
moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace;
(4) the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to Dr.
Russell's consultative psychological assessment; and (5)
the ALJ failed to consider Fears's obesity in combination
with her asthma and left knee ailments.
The Administrative Hearing
first argues that the ALJ violated the Social Security
Administration's internal operating guidelines-the HALLEX
manual-by proceeding at the hearing while she was in jail.
HALLEX manual “provides guiding principles, procedural
guidelines and information.” Parham v. Colvin,
No. 3:14cv283, 2015 WL 1649143, at *15 (E.D. Va. Apr. 13,
2015). “[I]nterpretations contained in policy
statements, agency manuals and enforcement guidelines lack
the force of law.” Id. (citing Christensen
v. Harris Cnty., 529 U.S. 576, 587 (2000)). An internal
claims manual created “for internal use by thousands of
SSA employees” is not a regulation, meaning “[i]t
has no legal force” and “does not bind the
SSA.” Schweiker v. Hansen, 450 U.S. 785, 789
(1981). “HALLEX is an internal guidance tool and thus,
lacks the force of law.” Parham, 2015 WL
1649143, at *15 (citations omitted). Thus, the HALLEX manual
gives Fears no basis to challenge the ALJ's decision.
then contends that the ALJ violated her rights under the Due
Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment when he determined that
she constructively waived her presence at the administrative
Fifth Amendment prevents any person from being
“deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law.” U.S. Const. Amend. V. It is
well-established that “[t]he fundamental requirement of
due process is the opportunity to be heard ‘at a
meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.'”
Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333 (1976)
(citing Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552
(1965)). To satisfy procedural due process, the individual
must, at a minimum, receive “notice and an opportunity
to be heard.” United States v. James Daniel Good
Real Prop., 510 U.S. 43, 48 (1993). The individual's
due process rights will be violated if the notice is not
“reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to
apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and
afford them an opportunity to present their [case].”
Mullane v. Cent. Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339
U.S. 306, 314 (1950) (citation omitted).
first received notice of her administrative hearing on
February 9, 2015. R. 270. A second notice was sent on March
17, 2015 notifying her of the administrative hearing. R. 302.
Fears's attorney was mailed copies of both notices. R.
was arrested on March 6, 2015, twenty-five days after
receiving her first notice and twenty-five days before her
hearing. R. 460. Fears remained in jail until April 2, when
she was released on bond. Id. Fears's attorney
received both notices prior to the administrative hearing and
was aware of her incarceration before the hearing began, ...