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Thomas v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

PATRICIA SUE THOMAS, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAMELA MEADE SARGENT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Background and Standard of Review

         Plaintiff, Patricia Sue Thomas (“Thomas”), filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, (“Commissioner”), denying her claims for disability insurance benefits, (“DIB”), and supplemental security income, (“SSI”), under the Social Security Act, as amended, (“Act”), 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 423 and 1381 et seq. (West 2011, West 2012 & 2018 Supp.). Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). This case is before the undersigned magistrate judge upon transfer by consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Neither party has requested oral argument; therefore, this case is ripe for decision.

         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 Thomas protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI on September 16, 2013, alleging disability as of August 1, 2014[1], due to panic attacks, anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, back injury, restless leg syndrome, arthritis, a heart condition, vertigo, bladder problems and thyroid problems. (Record, (“R.”), at 16, 216-17, 221-27, 244, 279-80.) The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 73-81, 83-98, 100-15, 120-22, 127-29, 133, 135-37, 139-44, 146-48.) Thomas then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. at 149-50, 173-74.) The ALJ held a hearing on October 26, 2016, at which Thomas was represented by counsel. (R. at 36-61.)

         By decision dated January 27, 2017, the ALJ denied Thomas's claims. (R. at 16-30.) The ALJ found that Thomas met the nondisability insured status requirements of the Act for DIB purposes through March 31, 2016.[2] (R. at 18.) The ALJ found that Thomas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.[3] (R. at 18.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Thomas had severe impairments, namely degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spines, anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and borderline intellectual functioning, but he found that Thomas 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 18-22.) The ALJ found that Thomas had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work[4] that did not require more than frequent postural activities. (R. at 22-28.) The ALJ also found that Thomas could understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and perform simple, routine tasks with occasional interaction with others and occasional changes in a routine work setting. (R. at 22.) The ALJ found that Thomas was unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. at 28-29.) Based on Thomas'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 Thomas could perform, including jobs as a cleaner, a laundry worker and a hand packager. (R. at 29-30.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Thomas was not under a disability as defined by the Act, and was not eligible for DIB or SSI benefits. (R. at 30.) See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g) (2018).

         After the ALJ issued his decision, Thomas pursued her administrative appeals, (R. at 212), but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Thomas 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, 416.1481 (2018). This case is before this court on the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment filed August 24, 2018.[5]

         II. Facts

         Thomas was born in 1964, (R. at 40, 216, 241), which classified her as a “person closely approaching advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d) at the alleged onset of disability. Thomas completed the ninth grade in school and has past work in a nursing home, a sewing factory and a hotel. (R. at 41-42, 269.) Thomas testified that she experienced pain in the middle part of her back going all the way down into her legs and feet. (R. at 44.) Thomas said that she could stand, at most, for 15 minutes before having to sit down. (R. at 45.) She said that she could not walk 100 feet without stopping and that, at most, she could lift 15 pounds. (R. at 45-46.) Thomas said that her average pain level on medication was a 9 on a 10-point pain scale. (R. at 46-47.) Thomas said that stressful situations caused her anxiety. (R. at 47.) Thomas said that she did not like to be around crowds. (R. at 47-48.) Thomas said that she had problems getting along with co-workers and supervisors. (R. at 48.)

         Mark Hileman, a vocational expert, was present and testified at Thomas's hearing. (R. at 55-61.) Hileman was asked to consider a hypothetical individual of Thomas's age, education and work history, who had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work with frequent postural activities, who is able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and perform simple routine tasks with occasional interaction with others and who is able to adapt to occasional simple changes in the routine workplace setting. (R. at 56-57.) Hileman stated that such an individual could perform Thomas's past work as a housekeeping cleaner and could perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, including those as a cleaner II, a laundry worker and a hand packager. (R. at 57-58.) Hileman stated that, if the individual could not maintain concentration and persist for two-hours periods during the workday, there would be no work she could perform. (R. at 59-60.) Hileman also stated that, if the individual would miss two or more days of work a month, there would be no work she could perform. (R. at 60.)

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ reviewed records from Richard J. Milan, Jr., Ph.D., a state agency psychologist; Eric Oritt, a state agency psychologist; Dr. Joseph Familant, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. R. S. Kadian, M.D., a state agency physician; Dr. James Louthan, M.D.; Dr. Curtis Jantzi, D.O.; Holston Medical Group; Indian Path Medical Center; and Christopher M. Carusi, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist.

         Dr. Curtis Jantzi, D.O., with Holston Medical Group, treated Thomas from at October 2011 to October, 2012. (R. at 367-94, 400-23.) On her initial visit with Dr. Jantzi on October 5, 2011, Thomas informed him that she was filing for disability benefits due to back pain. (R. at 420.) Thomas gave Dr. Jantzi a history of generalized anxiety with occasional panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic low back pain and hypothyroidism. (R. at 420.) Dr. Jantzi noted that spine x-rays showed mild degenerative changes at the T6-7 and T7-8 levels. (R. at 420.) Dr. Jantzi noted the Thomas exhibited a normal gait and normal movements of all extremities, normal muscle strength and tone with tenderness to palpation of the thoracic and lumbar paraspinal muscles and negative straight leg raises bilaterally. (R. at 422.)

         On November 7, 2011, Dr. Jantzi noted that a recent MRI of Thomas's lumbar spine showed no specific degenerative disc disease or stenosis. (R. at 413.) He stated that Thomas's pain was due to muscle spasm/strain, and he was referring Thomas to physical therapy and prescribing muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory medication. (R. at 413.) He also noted that Zoloft was working well for Thomas's complaints of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (R. at 413.) On February 6, 2012, Thomas requested that her dosage of Zoloft be increased. (R. at 405.) Dr. Jantzi noted normal affect and mood, normal gait, movement of extremities, muscle strength and tone, with negative straight leg raises bilaterally and tenderness to palpation of the thoracic and lumbar paraspinal muscles. (R. at 407.)

         On April 24, 2012, Thomas complained of persistent anxiety even with taking Zoloft and increased heart rate. (R. at 392.) She also complained of back pain and stiffness. (R at 392.) Dr. Jantzi noted that Thomas exhibited a normal gait, normal movements of all extremities, normal muscle strength and tone, negative straight leg raises bilaterally and tenderness on palpation of the thoracic and lumbar paraspinal muscles. (R. at 394.) He also noted normal mood ...


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