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Hall v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division

February 12, 2019

LINDA GALE HALL, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Pamela Meade Sargent United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Background and Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, Linda Gale Hall, (“Hall”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. § 423 et seq. (West 2011 & 2018 Supp.). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Neither party has requested oral argument. This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge by referral pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). As directed by the order of referral, the undersigned now submits the following report and recommended disposition.

         The court's review in this case is limited to determining if the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence has been defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). “‘If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is “substantial evidence.”'” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Laws, 368 F.2d at 642).

         The record shows that Hall protectively filed her application for DIB on June 19, 2013, [1] alleging disability as of September 21, 2012, based on osteoarthritis; herniated disc; carpal tunnel syndrome; depression; fibromyalgia; and difficulty walking due to swelling of her right foot. (Record, (“R.”), at 42, 253-54, 272, 304.) The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 171-73, 177-79, 182-85, 187-89.) Hall then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, (“ALJ”). (R. at 190-91.) The ALJ held a hearing on March 21, 2016, at which Hall was represented by counsel. (R. at 86-115.)

         By decision dated August 23, 2016, the ALJ denied Hall's claim. (R. at 42-59.) The ALJ found that Hall met the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through September 30, 2016. (R. at 45.) The ALJ found that Hall had engaged in substantial gainful activity during July 2014 through September 2014, but that there had been a continuous 12-month period during which she did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (R. at 45.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Hall had severe impairments, namely cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, (“COPD”); lung cancer; arthritis; and right shoulder rotator cuff tear, but he found that Hall did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 46-47.) The ALJ found that Hall had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary[2] work that required no more than occasional performance of postural activities and overhead activities; that required no more than frequent reaching, handling and fingering; that required no more than occasional use of foot controls; and that did not require her to work around pulmonary irritants. (R. at 49.) The ALJ found that Hall was unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. at 58.) Based on Hall's age, education, work history and residual functional capacity and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of other jobs existed in the national economy that Hall could perform, including jobs as an addressing clerk, a callout operator and a food checker. (R. at 58-59.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Hall was not under a disability as defined by the Act, and was not eligible for DIB benefits. (R. at 59.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (2018).

         After the ALJ issued his decision, Hall pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 251), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Hall then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (2018). This case is before this court on Hall's motion for summary judgment filed February 5, 2018, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed March 7, 2018.

         II. Facts & Analysis

         Hall was born in 1966, (R. at 89, 253), which classified her as a “younger person” at the time of her alleged disability onset date and at the time of the ALJ's 2016 decision under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). As of the date of the ALJ's decision, Hall was three months and five days from qualifying as a “person closely approaching advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d). Hall testified that she had an eighth-grade education[3] and past work experience as a certified nursing assistant, (“CNA”), and a companion. (R. at 89-91.)

         Mark A. Hileman, a vocational expert, also was present and testified at Hall's hearing. (R. at 106-14.) Hileman classified Hall's past work as a CNA as medium[4] and semi-skilled and as a companion as light[5] and semi-skilled. (R. at 106.) Hileman was asked to consider a hypothetical individual of Hall's age, education and work history, who could perform light work that did not require more than occasional postural activities; who should avoid pulmonary irritants; who could occasionally perform overhead activities and use foot controls; and who could frequently perform reaching, handling and fingering. (R. at 106-07.) Hileman testified that such an individual could perform Hall's past work as a companion, but not as a CNA (R. at 107.) He also stated that the individual could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including jobs as a marker, a cafeteria attendant and a routing clerk. (R. at 107.) Hileman next was asked to consider the same individual, but who could perform sedentary work. (R. at 108.) Hileman testified that this individual could not perform any of Hall's past work, but could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including jobs as an addressing clerk, a callout operator and a food checker. (R. at 108.) Hileman stated that there were no transferable skills from Hall's prior work to jobs at the sedentary level. (R. at 108-09.) Next, Hileman was asked to consider the hypothetical individual who was limited to sedentary work, but who would be required to use a cane to change positions two days a week. (R. at 109.) He testified that such an individual could not perform any work. (R. at 109.) He stated that, if the cane was required for walking only, there would be jobs in the light category that such an individual could perform, including jobs as a cashier II, a toll collector and a ticket taker. (R. at 110-11.)

         The Commissioner uses a five-step process in evaluating DIB claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2018). See also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983); Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264-65 (4th Cir. 1981). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in order, whether a claimant 1) is working; 2) has a severe impairment; 3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; 4) can return to her past relevant work; and 5) if not, whether she can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds conclusively that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in this process, review does not proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (2018).

         Under this analysis, a claimant has the initial burden of showing that she is unable to return to her past relevant work because of her impairments. Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. To satisfy this burden, the Commissioner must then establish that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience and impairments, to perform alternative jobs that exist in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 423(d)(2)(A) (West 2011 & 2018 Supp.); McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983); Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65; Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980).

         As stated above, the court's function in this case is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's findings. This court must not weigh the evidence, as this court lacks authority to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, provided her decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. In determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the court also must consider whether the ALJ analyzed all of the relevant evidence and whether the ALJ sufficiently explained his findings and his rationale in crediting evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Hall argues that substantial evidence does not exist to support the ALJ's finding that she was not disabled. (Plaintiff's Brief In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment, (“Plaintiff's Brief”), at 9-17.) In particular, Hall argues that the ALJ erred by failing to find that she suffered from a severe mental impairment. (Plaintiff's Brief at 11-13.) Hall also argues that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate and weigh Dr. Blackwell's opinion. (Plaintiff's Brief ...


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