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Carr v. Berryhill

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

November 30, 2018

LINDA E. CARR, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is established pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This court's review is limited to a determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusion that plaintiff failed to meet the requirements for entitlement to benefits under the Act. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The plaintiff, Linda E. Carr, was born on May 3, 1961, and eventually completed the tenth grade in school. Ms. Carr has been employed as a cashier and kitchen helper. She last worked on a regular and sustained basis in 2006. On October 2, 2013, Ms. Carr filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. In filing her current claim, Ms. Carr alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on June 30, 2006, due to pain in her back and right shoulder, numbness and weakness in her toes and right hand, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, memory problems, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 216). Ms. Carr now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. The record reveals that Ms. Carr met the insured status requirements of the Act through the fourth quarter of 2010, but not thereafter. See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a). Consequently, plaintiff is entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits only if she has established that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on or before her date last insured, December 31, 2010.

         Ms. Carr's application was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated August 19, 2016, the Law Judge also determined, after applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, that Ms. Carr was not disabled on or before her date last insured.[1] See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Law Judge found that Ms. Carr suffered from several severe impairments through that date, including lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease of the shoulder, gall stones, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder, but that these impairments did not, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the requirements of a listed impairment. (Tr. 17-18). The Law Judge then assessed Ms. Carr's residual functional capacity as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) except the claimant could occasionally kneel, crawl, crouch, stoop, or climb ramps and stairs. She could not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She should have avoided exposure to workplace hazards, such as hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. She could perform simple, routine tasks of no more than four steps. She could occasionally interact with the public.

(Tr. 21). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering testimony from a vocational expert, the Law Judge determined that Ms. Carr was unable to perform any past relevant work through the date last insured. (Tr. 23). However, the Law Judge found that she retained the capacity to perform other work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (Tr. 27). Accordingly, the Law Judge concluded that Ms. Carr was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date through the date last insured, and that she is not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The Law Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Ms. Carr has now appealed to this court.

         While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).

         After a review of the record in this case, the court is constrained to conclude that the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. The Law Judge's opinion reflects a throughout evaluation of Ms. Carr's medical problems and the extent to which they affected her ability to work. Although Ms. Carr suffered from a combination of physical and emotional impairments, substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's determination that she retained the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work through her date last insured.

         The record reflects that Ms. Carr presented to Carilion Clinic with complaints of back and hip pain in November of 2005, prior to her alleged onset date. (Tr. 295). She was examined by Dr. Dallas Crickenberger, an orthopedic specialist. During the examination, plaintiff reported that the pain was worse after standing for her job as a cashier, and that cortisone injections provided by her primary care physician, Dr. David Cummings, provided pain relief for approximately two months. Plaintiff indicated that she had been stressed because of the pain and that she was taking Lortab and Xanax for "her nerves." (Tr. 295). Plaintiff advised Dr. Crickenberger that she wanted to be able to "work a little bit more in terms of standing time" and increase her time mowing the lawn from "1-2 hours to 2-4 hours because her lawn is about 10 acres" in size. (Tr. 295). On physical examination, Ms. Carr exhibited some tenderness to palpitation in the left hip and paralumbar area, but her motor strength, sensation, and reflexes were normal. X-rays of plaintiff s left hip revealed "good joint space," "no spurs," and "no destructive changes." (Tr. 296). Lumbar spine x-rays showed mild degenerative changes and spondylosis at L3-4. (Tr. 310-11). The remainder of the lumbar spine appeared "essentially unremarkable." (Tr. 311).

         Ms. Carr saw Dr. Cummings on several occasions in 2006. While few treatment notes were compiled, it was indicated that plaintiff complained of back and hip pain in October and December. Dr. Cummings continued plaintiff on Lortab and Xanax. (Tr. 396).

         In April of 2007, plaintiff presented to Dr. John Hagy with complaints of abdominal pain and intermittent rectal bleeding. (Tr. 301). She was noted to be obese, but her physical examination was otherwise normal with no signs of tenderness in her back or lower extremities. (Tr. 302-03). An abdominal CT scan revealed the presence of gallstones but was "otherwise unremarkable." (Tr. 312). Dr. Hagy recommended that plaintiff undergo a colonoscopy. (Tr. 301-02). He refilled plaintiffs prescriptions for Lortab and Xanax, and started her on Prevacid. (Tr. 303).

         In April of 2008, Ms. Carr was taken by ambulance to Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital from a local funeral home. (Tr. 257). Plaintiff reported that her brother-in-law had just passed away, and that she had experienced hyperventilation and dizziness. She was given Ativan and released a few hours later. The attending physician's diagnostic impression included "grief reaction" and "panic attack." (Tr. 257).

         In August of 2008, Ms. Carr returned to the emergency room and reported that she had experienced a panic attack the previous day while eating. (Tr. 263). She indicated that it felt like food would not go down her throat. (Tr. 263). Plaintiff acknowledged that this had "only happened twice" and that she was no longer having difficulty swallowing. (Tr. 263). On physical examination, there was no airway obstruction, back tenderness, neck tenderness, or edema in her extremities. She was diagnosed with an "anxiety reaction" and prescribed Xanax and Prilosec. (Tr. 263).

         In December of 2008, Ms. Carr presented to the emergency room with complaints of abdominal pain and diarrhea. (Tr. 270). Aside from exhibiting mild abdominal tenderness, her physical examination was normal and she walked with a steady gait. (Tr. 270-76). The attending physician noted that she was ...

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