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Lawton v. Berryhill

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

April 1, 2018

AMBER L. LAWTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Robert S. Ballou United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Amber Lynne Lawton (“Lawton”) 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. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Specifically, Lawton alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (1) failed to consider Lawton's mental impairments and resulting difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; (2) did not pose a proper hypothetical which contained all her impairments to the vocational expert; (3) erroneously found that Lawton did not require a cane to walk; and (4) improperly discounted her “credibility.” I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Lawton's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 14), and GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 16).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Lawton failed to demonstrate that she 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

         Lawton protectively filed for SSI and DIB on April 7, 2014, claiming that her disability began on December 2, 2013. R. 206-16. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 87, 100. On May 11, 2016, ALJ Joseph T. Scruton held an administrative hearing to consider Lawton's disability claim. R. 33-67. Lawton was represented by an attorney at the hearing, which included testimony from Lawton and vocational expert John F. Newman. Id.

         On June 15, 2016, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Lawton's claim under the familiar five-step process, [2] and denying Lawton's claim for disability. R. 17-27. The ALJ found that Lawton suffered from the severe impairments of: cholelithiasis with liver disease; mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, thoracic spine, and cervical spine; generalized osteoarthritis; mood disorder; anxiety; dermatitis/eczema condition affecting hands; diagnosed fibromyalgia; and asthma. R. 19-20. The ALJ further found that Lawton retained the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work, but she is restricted to occasionally lifting and carrying ten pounds, standing and/or walking up to two hours in an eight-hour period, and sitting for six hours in an eight-hour period. R. 22. Next, the ALJ found that Lawton “cannot crawl or climb, but she is capable of occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching.” Id. Additionally, the ALJ found that Lawton is capable of “frequent, though not constant, reaching, handling, and fingering bilaterally” and that she can “comprehend and complete 1-3 step tasks with non-complex work instructions.” Id.The ALJ determined that Lawton could not return to her past relevant work as a packer performed at the medium level of exertion, a retail manager, a laborer, a housekeeper, or a cashier. R. 26. However, the ALJ determined that Lawton could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as assembler, packer (performed at the sedentary level of exertion), and inspector/tester. R. 27. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Lawton was not disabled. Id.

         Lawton appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, but her request for review was subsequently denied. R. 1-3. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Lawton challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds: (1) that the ALJ failed to properly consider Lawton's mental impairments and resulting difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace and did not include these impairments in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert at the hearing; (2) that the ALJ erroneously found that Lawton did not require a cane to walk; and (3) that the ALJ erred when he was not adequately specific in finding that Lawton's statements regarding her purported symptoms were inconsistent with the objective medical evidence. I find that each of Lawton's challenges to the ALJ's decision fails and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

         Concentration, Persistence, or Pace

         Lawton contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider her mental impairments and resulting difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace regarding the management of an eight-hour work day. Specifically, Lawton argues that the ALJ erred by “never explain[ing] his finding in relation to the medical evidence of record” when he evaluated Lawton's “mild-to-moderate” limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and therefore the Court is left to guess at how the ALJ developed Lawton's RFC. Dkt. 15, at 23-24. Additionally, Lawton argues that the ALJ erred because “the ALJ's hypothetical questions to the vocational expert did not include any questions addressing [Lawton's] mild to moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.” Id. at 25.

         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 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 ...


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