United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
C. HOPPE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Lawrence S. (“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).
Standard of Review
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)).
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).
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). 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.
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.
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. 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.
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, 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.
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 ...