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Hunter v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2018

THOMAS E. HUNTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Thomas E. Hunter filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) finding him not disabled and therefore ineligible for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Hunter alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to properly: (1) determine his RFC and conduct a function by function analysis; and (2) evaluate his credibility. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision in all respects. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Hunter's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14) and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 16).


         This court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Hunter 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 and alterations 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).


         Hunter filed for SSI on August 23, 2012, claiming his disability began on April 30, 2008, due to bulging and herniated disks, emphysema, panic and anxiety attacks, numbness in his extremities, high blood pressure, and depression.[2] R. 21, 63, 168. The state agency denied Hunter's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 63-74, 76-88. On October 8, 2015, ALJ William Barto held a hearing to consider Hunter's claims for SSI. R. 38-62. Hunter was represented by counsel at the hearing, which included testimony from vocational expert Tony Melanson.

         On November 3, 2015, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Hunter's claims under the familiar five-step process[3] and denying his claim for benefits. R. 21-31. The ALJ found that Hunter suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and open wound of the lower limb.[4] R. 23. The ALJ determined that these impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment. R. 25. In particular, the ALJ considered Listings 1.00(Q)(musculoskeletal system), 1.04(disorders of the spine), and 1.08(soft tissue injury), and noted that no treating or examining physicians recorded findings of the severity required to meet or equal a listed impairment. Id. The ALJ concluded that Hunter retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work. R. 25. Specifically, the ALJ found that Hunter can only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, be exposed to vibration and workplace hazards, and operate foot controls with his left lower extremity. Id. Further, Hunter must be able to change to a sitting position at will for up to five minutes as needed, to alleviate pain. Id. The ALJ determined that Hunter was unable to perform his past relevant work as a drywall mechanic, but that he could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as cashier, office helper, and machine feeder. R. 29-30. Hunter appealed the ALJs' decision and the Appeals Council denied his request for review on January 23, 2017. R. 1-4.


         A. Relevant Medical History

         Hunter visited the emergency room on multiple occasions in 2012 complaining of hand numbness and pain and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. R. 326, 328, 571, 576, 624- 26. Hunter also complained of chronic low back pain. R. 572. A CT scan of his cervical spine in August 2012 was “essentially negative” with “some minimal degenerative changes.” R. 527. Similarly, lumbar spine x-rays in May 2015 showed degenerative changes, not significantly changed compared to previous exams in 2010. R. 1348-49.

         During this time frame Hunter visited the emergency room as a result of multiple accidents, including shooting himself in the foot.[5] In October 2012, Hunter presented at the emergency room with a gunshot wound to his left foot, which he indicated occurred accidentally while cleaning his shotgun. R. 665. Hunter had immediate surgery on his left foot, including partial amputations of his third and fourth toes and an open reduction internal fixation of his second toe. R. 674, 678, 682. Following the surgery, Hunter continued to complain of pain in his left toes, including phantom pain in his absent toes. R. 801, 817. On November 28, 2012, Hunter began physical therapy on his left foot, where he complained of swelling, pain, and trouble balancing. R. 904. In December 2012, Hunter underwent a skin graft on his left foot to speed up the healing process; however, the skin graft failed due to infection. R. 840, 915. Hunter continued with physical therapy into 2013, where he continued to complain of foot pain. R. 915, 920. Hunter was also treated at Carilion Clinic Pain Management Center, where he was prescribed Oxycodone, which helped to control his pain. R. 930, 944, 1146, 1151. However, in June 2013, his pain management doctor refused to continue his Oxycodone, as during a recent incarceration and temporary detention order, Hunter reportedly “stated his wife had been taking his medications.”[6] R. 1157. On September 28, 2013, Hunter was admitted to the open ward at Roanoke Memorial Hospital for suicidal thoughts and a history of depression and anxiety; he participated in group therapy and was discharged on October 8, 2013. R. 1333-37. On discharge, his diagnoses were major depressive disorder, severe, without psychotic symptoms, and substance use disorder, along with the issues of marital problems, homelessness, unemployment, and chronic pain. R. 1341.

         State agency doctors James Wickham, M.D. and Thomas Phillips, M.D. performed a records review and both found that Hunter was capable of performing a limited range of light work.[7] R. 72, 86.

         B. RFC Findings and Function by Function Analysis

         Hunter asserts that the ALJ's RFC findings are not supported by substantial evidence, arguing that the medical evidence establishes impairments that impose more restrictions than those found by the ALJ. Hunter argues that the ALJ failed to make any “specific findings regarding [his] inability to maintain a static work posture, his manipulative limitations, his need to [elevate his left leg] and lie down and rest during the day, or the frequency he would be absent from work . . . .” Pl.'s Br. at 27, Dkt. No. 15. According to Hunter, these ...

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