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Lawrence S. v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2019

LAWRENCE S., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Lawrence S.[1] (“Lawrence”) asks this Court to review the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). ECF No. 7. Having considered the administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the applicable law, I cannot find that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's final decision. Accordingly, the decision will be reversed and the case remanded under the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act authorizes this Court to review the Commissioner's final decision that a person is not entitled to disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court's role, however, is limited-it may not “reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of agency officials. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). Instead, a court reviewing the merits of the Commissioner's final decision asks only whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011); see Riley v. Apfel, 88 F.Supp.2d 572, 576 (W.D. Va. 2000) (citing Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991)).

         “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence, id., but not necessarily “a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial evidence review takes into account the entire record, and not just the evidence cited by the ALJ. See Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487-89 (1951); Gordon v. Schweiker, 725 F.2d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 1984). Ultimately, this Court must affirm the ALJ's factual findings if “conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). However, “[a] factual finding by the ALJ is not binding if it was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law.” Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         A person is “disabled” within the meaning of the Act if he or she is unable to engage in “any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Social Security ALJs follow a five-step process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ asks, in sequence, whether the claimant (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment that satisfies the Act's duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the Act's regulations; (4) can return to his or her past relevant work based on his or her residual functional capacity; and, if not (5) whether he or she can perform other work. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 (1983); Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[2] The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four. Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861. At step five, the burden shifts to the agency to prove that the claimant is not disabled. See id.

         II. Procedural History

         In August 2013, Lawrence filed for DIB alleging that he was disabled by fibromyalgia; rotator cuff syndrome; lumbar myofascial, spondylosis, herniation and annular tear; traumatic brain injury and post-concussion syndrome; diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension; sleep apnea; bipolar disorder; and attention deficit disorder. See Administrative Record (“R.”) 75, 176-77, ECF No. 9. Lawrence was fifty-three years old, or a “person closely approaching advanced age” under the regulations, when he allegedly became disabled in September 2011. R. 75; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d). Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied his claim initially in March 2014, R. 74-85, and upon reconsideration that December, R. 86-101. On June 7, 2016, Lawrence appeared with counsel and testified at an administrative hearing before ALJ William Hauser. See R. 45-72. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified at this hearing. R. 66-72.

         ALJ Hauser issued an unfavorable decision on August 3, 2016. R. 24-36. He first found that Lawrence had not worked since he allegedly became disabled on September 23, 2011, and that he met the Act's insured-status requirements through December 31, 2013.[3] R. 25. At step two, ALJ Hauser found that, as of his DLI, Lawrence had severe medical impairments including degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease rotator cuff repair, lumbar spine tumor, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain injury/post-concussion syndrome, obesity, and coronary artery disease with stent placement. Id. The ALJ found the following impairments to be non-severe: hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypogonadism, vitamin D deficiency, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, symptomatic venous insufficiency conditions, gastrointestinal conditions, and Lyme's disease. R. 25-27. None of Lawrence's severe impairments met or equaled a listing at step three. R. 27-29.

         ALJ Hauser then evaluated Lawrence's functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that during the relevant period he could have performed less than a full range of medium, unskilled work as defined in the regulations. See R. 29 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c)). More specifically, Lawrence could “lift 25 lbs. frequently and 50 lbs. occasionally”; sit and stand for six hours during an eight-hour work day; and occasionally crouch, crawl, kneel, stoop, climb, and reach overhead with either arm. Id. He could perform “simple, routine tasks [involving] occasional interaction with peers, public, and supervisors, but he “would be off task 10% of the time, miss 10 days of work a year, and need 10 minutes of rest every 2 hours.” Id. Based on this RFC finding and the VE's testimony, ALJ Hauser concluded at step five that Lawrence was not disabled between September 23, 2011, and December 31, 2013, because he still could have performed certain unskilled occupations that offered a significant number of jobs in the national economy, such as mold filler, hand packager, or box bender. R. 35-36. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, R. 1-5, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         On appeal, Lawrence challenges the ALJ's RFC determination. He argues that the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinions of the state agency physicians over the opinion of his treating physician, Laura Stone, M.D. He also asserts that the RFC does not fully account for his difficulties standing, lifting, reaching, and handling stress. See Pl.'s Br. 14-25, ECF No. 14.

         A. Medical Evidence

         On November 2, 2011, Lillian Somner, D.O., a psychiatrist, evaluated Lawrence for depression, anger, and attention deficit disorder. R. 287-304. Lawrence reported having pain for as long as he could remember, and he experienced instances of uncontrollable anger and situational depression. R. 287-88. He had sustained numerous head injuries, and he had trouble concentrating. R. 290-91. Dr. Somner conducted various tests as well as a brain scan, which was negative. See R. 595. She ...

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