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Revere v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

January 3, 2019

PATRICIA LOUISE REVERE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          David J. Novak, United States Magistrate Judge.

         On March 10, 2014, Patricia Louise Revere ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from dermatomyositis, asthma, anxiety, diverticulitis, and diabetes type II, with an alleged onset date of April 1, 2012. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred by failing to adequately address rebuttal evidence and post-hearing objections to the vocational expert's testimony. (Br. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Br.") (ECF No. 14) at 3.) This matter now comes before the Court by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter ripe for review.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court hereby GRANTS Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13), DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 19) and REVERSES and REMANDS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI with an alleged onset date of April 1, 2012. (R. at 276-82, 283-88.) The SSA denied these claims initially on September 9, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on December 4, 2014. (R. at 173-90, 203-11.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on August 9, 2014. (R. at 41-108, 212-13.) On October 28, 2016, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claims and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 20-40.) On September 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-6.)

         On September 25, 2018, the Court ordered Defendant to submit supplemental briefing explaining how ALJ's decision comported with the "show your work" principle set forth in Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 846 F.3d 656, 663 (4th Cir. 2017). Defendant submitted her supplemental brief (ECF No. 24) on October 2, 2018, and Plaintiff filed her response (ECF No. 25) on October 5, 2018.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a court "will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination 'when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Indeed, "the substantial evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v. Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 274 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must examine the record as a whole, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517(4thCir. 1987).

         The Social Security Administration regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). At any step, if the ALJ finds the claimant disabled or not disabled, the ALJ makes his determination or decision and thus does not go on to the next step. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On August 9, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing, during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 41-108.) On October 28, 2016, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 20-40.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 25-34.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2012. (R. at 25.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, dermatomyositis, [2] diverticulosis status post resection, [3] irritable bowel syndrome and ventral hernia with abdominal lesions with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus ("MRSA"). (R. at 25-26.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 28-29.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with additional limitations. (R. at 29.) Specifically, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to lifting five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally and to sitting for six hours and standing or walking for two hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 29.) Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding; however, she could occasionally crawl, crouch, bend, stoop and climb steps or ramps. (R. at 29.) Plaintiff also required ten minutes of rest every two hours and had to avoid exposure to heights and dangerous machinery. (R. at 29.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff needed close access to a bathroom. (R. at 29.) The ALJ estimated that Plaintiff would be off task 10 percent of the time and miss twelve days of work a year. (R. at 29.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a medical receptionist and registration coordinator. (R. at 34.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 29.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, fifty-four years old at the time of this Memorandum Opinion, previously worked as a medical receptionist and registration coordinator. (R. at 34, 53, 303.) She applied for Social Security benefits, alleging disability from dermatomyositis, asthma, anxiety, diverticulitis and diabetes type II, with an alleged onset date of April 1, 2012. (R. at 302.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred by failing to adequately address rebuttal evidence and post-hearing objections to the VE's testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 3.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ erred in his decision.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Failing to Adequately Discuss Plaintiffs Objections.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly explain his decision for denying the five objections raised by Plaintiff in her post-hearing brief. (R. at 434-40; Pl.'s Br. at 4-10.) Defendant maintains that the ALJ appropriately denied Plaintiffs objections. (Br. ...


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