United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
M. Brinkema United States District Judge.
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Carolyn Hackley
("Hackley" or "plaintiff") seeks judicial
review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration ("Commissioner" or
"defendant") denying her claim for disability
insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the
Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401-34. The parties have submitted cross motions
for summary judgment and waived oral argument. For the
reasons that follow, plaintiffs motion will be denied, and
defendant's motion will be granted.
January 28, 2014, Hackley filed her application for DIB with
the Social Security Administration ("SSA"),
alleging that her disability began December 3, 2011.
Administrative Record ("R.") at 147. Hackley was 61
years old on the date of the alleged onset of disability, had
a high school diploma, and had previously worked as an
accounts receivables clerk since 2000, but was laid off in
2011 when her employer's business closed. Id. at
49, 187-88 & 427. Before that position as an accounts
receivables clerk, Hackley had been a receptionist at a
hospital for over 20 years. Id. at 188.
parties do not dispute that Hackley suffers from multiple
physical impairments, including degenerative disc disease of
the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the right shoulder and
the left knee, and obesity. Id. at 15. On December
21, 2011, Hackley underwent knee surgery, specifically a left
arthroscopic partial media and lateral meniscectomy with
chondroplasty. Id. at 291. On June 27, 2012, she
sustained an injury to her left knee when she twisted it
getting out of a car and on July 10, 2012, she complained of
the knee having significant swelling. Id. at 284.
Hackley also suffers from significant back pain, right
shoulder impingement syndrome, biceps tendonitis, as well as
irritable bowel syndrome. Id. at 302, 385 & 470.
addition to these physical ailments, Hackley suffers from
depression and anxiety. Id. at 16, 389 & 426.
Although she did not allege any mental impairments in her
application for disability benefits, Id. at 186, she
began suffering from anxiety in 2007 when her son became ill
and subsequently passed away, Id. at 426. Plaintiffs
medical records do not reflect that she has ever undergone
any formal mental health treatment; however, she has taken
medication in the evening to help her sleep and to treat
feelings of irritability and over-excitement.
disability claim was initially denied on March 19, 2015,
Id. at 82-85, and again upon reconsideration on
August 21, 2015, Id. at 90-92. Plaintiff, who was
represented by a non-attorney disability advocate, appeared
before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on May
3, 2017. Id. at 30-52. Plaintiff and a vocational
expert testified during the hearing. Id. at 13. On
December 7, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 13-24. The ALJ
concluded that plaintiff was last insured as of December 31,
2015 and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity from the alleged onset date to the date last insured.
Id. at 15. Although the ALJ recognized that Hackley
had the following severe impairments-degenerative disc
disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the right
shoulder and the left knee, and obesity-the ALJ found that
Hackley had the residual functional capacity
("RFC") to perform sedentary work, which included
her past relevant work as an accounts receivables clerk.
Id. at 15-23. Because Hackley had the RFC to perform
her past relevant work, the ALJ found her not disabled.
Hackley's mental impairments, the ALJ concluded that
plaintiffs anxiety and depression "did not cause more
than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to
perform basic mental work activities and were therefore
nonsevere." Id. at 16. This conclusion was
based on the March 15, 2015 mental health evaluation by the
SSA's psychological consultant Dr. Elizabeth Halper
("Halper") who diagnosed plaintiff with generalized
anxiety disorder, in partial remission, well-controlled with
medication, and bereavement, in remission. Id. at
428. Dr. Halper concluded that plaintiff had no degree of
disability "based on mental health alone,"
observing that plaintiff herself "denies her anxiety
impacting her ability to work," instead explaining that
"most of her occupational challenges stem from medical
concerns." Id. Most importantly for this
review, Dr. Halper stated in her report that:
[Plaintiff] appears capable of performing simple and
repetitive tasks without difficulty. More complex tasks with
multiple step instructions may be difficult for her
though with enough time and support in the form of written
steps or an individual to whom she can pose questions she
should be able to perform more complex tasks as well.
Id. at 428-29 (emphasis added). The ALJ afforded Dr.
Halper's opinion "significant weight."
Id. at 17.
appealed the ALJ's denial to the SSA's Appeals
Council ("Appeals Council"), which denied her
request for review on September 17, 2018. Id. at
1-3. The Appeals Council's action resulted in the
ALJ's decision being the final decision of the
Commissioner. Hackley timely filed for review of that
decision in this court on November 14, 2018. Compl. [Dkt. No.
1]. The parties have now submitted cross-motions for summary
Standard of Review
social security claimant appeals the Commissioner's final
decision to deny disability benefits, judicial review by the
district court is limited to determining whether, based on
the entire administrative record, the Commissioner's
decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
correct law was applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hancock
v. Astrue,667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012).
Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind
would accept as sufficient to support a particular
conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla but may
be somewhat less than a preponderance." English v.
Shalala,10 F.3d 1080, 1084 (4th Cir. 1993) (citation
omitted). In determining whether an agency's conclusion
is supported by substantial evidence, the Court "must
take into account whatever in the record detracts from"
the agency's conclusion. Universal Camera Corp. v.
NLRB.340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951). In reviewing the record
for substantial evidence, the court should not
"undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for
that of the [Commissioner]." ...