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Erika L. v. Berryhill

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

August 13, 2018

ERIKA L.,[1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ROBERT S. BALLOU UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Erika L. (“Erika”) 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 disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Specifically, Erika alleges that (1) the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly consider her hand impairments; (2) the ALJ erred in giving partial weight to the opinion of her treating physician; and (3) new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council warrants remand. I find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision on all grounds. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Erika'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 supports the Commissioner's conclusion that Erika failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[2] 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

         Erika filed for DIB on October 3, 2013, claiming that her disability began on September 3, 2013. R. 130. The Commissioner denied Erika's application at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 62, 72. On January 4, 2016, ALJ Mary C. Peltzer held an administrative hearing to consider Erika's disability claim, which included testimony from Erika, her attorney, and vocational expert Robert Jackson. R. 29-54.

         On January 21, 2016, the ALJ entered her decision analyzing Erika's claim under the familiar five-step process, [3] and denying her claim for benefits. R. 15-24. The ALJ found that Erika suffered from the severe impairments of systemic lupus erythematosus with antiphospholipid syndrome and chronic kidney disease. R. 17. The ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 18. The ALJ further found that Erika had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work, except that she can (1) frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, handle, finger, and climb ramps and stairs; (2) occasionally crawl and be exposed to workplace hazards such as dangerous moving machinery; (3) never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or be exposed to unprotected heights and operating machinery with exposed moving parts; and (4) only work “in a static work environment where changes in tasks are infrequent and explained when they do occur.” R. 18.

         The ALJ determined that Erika is incapable of performing her past relevant work as a hospital cook. R. 23. However, the ALJ found that Erika could perform competitive work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an usher/lobby attendant or a counter clerk. R. 24. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Erika is not disabled. Id.

         Erika requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. R. 1-3. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Erika alleges that that (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider her hand impairments; (2) the ALJ erred in giving partial weight to the opinion of her treating physician; and (3) new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council warrants remand.

         Medical Evidence Prior to the Relevant Period [4]

         Erika was diagnosed with lupus in 2006. R. 578. A kidney biopsy conducted in 2008 revealed Class II lupus nephritis. Id. Erika's lupus primarily manifested with a rash, joint pain, and pleurisy. Id.

         On April 6, 2012, Erika saw Laura E. Yount, M.D., reporting that she “felt off.” R. 519. Erika presented with expressive aphasia and tachycardia. Id. Dr. Yount explained that Erika's tachycardia symptoms resolved during the visit. R. 520. Dr. Yount proceeded with a “stroke workup, ” referring Erika to neurology and ordering an MRI, MRA, and echocardiogram with a bubble study. R. 520. On April 12, 2012, Manuel T. Peralta, M.D., confirmed that Erika suffered a stroke six days prior. R. 435. Dr. Peralta explained that Erika only reported issues affecting her speech. Id. Dr. Peralta prescribed Coumadin and referred Erika to speech therapy classes. Id. Dr. Peralta stated that Erika was “much better today compared to 6 days ago.” Id.

         On May 9, 2012, Erika saw Maya Ghaemmaghami, M.D., for advice on anticoagulation. R. 504. Dr. Ghaemmaghami explained that an MRI conducted on April 9, 2012 showed a left-sided stroke. Id. Dr. Ghaemmaghami stated that Erika was “doing quite well and working and doing all of her usual activities.” Id.

         Erika was discharged from speech therapy on May 21, 2012 after seven sessions. R. 503. Yvonne Staton, M.S., explained that Erika's communication skills were within normal limits, and stated that Erika “began re-employment within the last week of her therapy[ and] reported effective usage of her communication in the work environment.” Id.

         Erika returned to Dr. Ghaemmaghami for a six-month checkup on November 12, 2012. R. 337. Dr. Ghaemmaghami noted a history of anemia, thrombocyptopenia, nephritis, and anthralgias. Id. Overall, Dr. Ghaemmaghami stated that Erika was “doing very well” and that “[h]er lupus is under control with her current medications.” Id. Physical examination revealed normal results, although Erika presented with a “slight cushingoid ...


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