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De Whitt-Matthews v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Newport News Division

April 16, 2018

KENDALL DE WHITT-MATTHEWS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DOUGLAS E. MILLER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Kendall De Whitt-Matthews seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Social Security Income ("SSI"). Specifically, De Whitt-Matthews claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") relied on Hawed vocational expert testimony. This action was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(b)(1)(B) and (C), and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         After reviewing the parties' briefs and the administrative record of the Agency's findings, this Report concludes that the ALJ complied with the law and regulations governing disability benefits under the Social Security Act. Accordingly, for the reasons stated in detail below, this report recommends that the court AFFIRM the final decision of the Commissioner by GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) and DENYING De Whitt-Matthews's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12).

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On April 15, 2013, De Whitt-Matthews filed an application for DIB. R. at 21. She alleged that she was disabled as of August 3, 2011, due to body-wide pain and soft tissue damage. R. at 242. The state agency denied her application initially and again upon reconsideration. R. at 126-30, 133-37. De Whitt-Matthews then requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted March 3, 2016. R. at 37-70.

         The ALJ denied De Whitt-Matthews's claims for DIB and SSI, finding she was not disabled during the period alleged. R. at 18-36. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. R. at 1-7. De Whitt-Matthews then filed the Complaint in the present action seeking review of the administrative proceedings. Compl. (ECF No. 3).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         De Whitt-Matthews was born on February 28, 1966, and was 51 at the time of the ALJ's decision. R. at 21, 80. She completed high school, and has worked as a cleaner and housekeeper. R, at 45. The parties have not disputed the ALJ's findings regarding De Whitt-Matthews' functional limitations. See Pl.'s Br. (ECF No. 13); Def.'s Br. (ECF No. 15). Her medical history and her testimony to the ALJ are therefore only briefly summarized here. The testimony of the Vocational Expert ("VE") and the ALJ's reliance on that testimony is at issue and will be described in greater detail.

         a. History of Treatment.

         De Whitt-Matthews was in good health before she was in a car accident on August 3, 2011. In the accident, her vehicle was rear-ended. She told her doctors that "[h]er left arm flew out and she was thrown up from the seat." After the accident, she had serious pain throughout her body. During treatment with a pain management specialist in December of that year, she complained of pain in the middle of her back and her lower back, as well as in her neck, arms, and heels. She also complained of numbness in the top of her head. She complained of trouble sleeping. R. at 388. She underwent an MRI examination which revealed cervical spinal straightening, a loss of normal cervical lordosis, and mild thoracic and cervical degenerative changes. R. at 412. Her treatment records with the pain management specialist reflect ongoing treatment for pain management throughout the next year. R. at 412-13.

         By April 2015, De Whitt-Matthews' condition had generally stabilized. She was able to walk normally and unaided, though she did complain of pain on spinal flexion in her lower thoracic and upper lumbar region. She had good range of motion in her joints otherwise with only mild discomfort in her shoulders. R. at 560. She was using prescribed pain medication to manage her pain. Id. She was diagnosed with chronic pain and with multi-level cervical and thoracic degenerative disc disease and less-severe degenerative disc disease in her lumbar spine. R. at 561.

         In early 2016, De Whitt-Matthews' treating pain management specialist and chiropractor completed "Physical Medical Source Statement" forms for her identifying significant functional impairments due to her chronic pain. R. at 563-66, 638-41, 648.

         c. Testimony Before the Administrative Law Judge.

         De Whitt-Matthews testified before the ALJ at her hearing. She described her past work history as well has how the pain that resulted from her injuries in the 2011 car accident has affected her life. R. at 45-72. She testified she had severe muscle spasms that kept her from moving her arms or grasping. R. at 47. She also testified that her pain kept her from sleeping. R. at 49-50. She told the ALJ she had difficulty shopping because of the pain she was in while standing or walking. See R. at 51-52. She also told him she had trouble lifting objects much heavier than a gallon of milk. R. at 55. She testified she does not exercise and does not carry on social activities because of her pain. R. at 57.

         The ALJ also heard testimony from Edith Edwards, a vocational expert ("VE"), to assist him in determining whether there were jobs in the national economy De Whitt-Matthews was capable of performing. See R. at 72-81. He presented the VE with the following hypothetical person: someone of De Whitt-Matthews's age, education, and work background who, among other limitations, [1]

[c]an lift/carry up to 10 pounds occasionally from waist to chest level. Walk about two hours within an eight-hour workday, but no longer than one block at a time on a flat even surface. Can stand/walk four to six hours in an eight-hour workday with a sit/stand option, changing position about ...

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