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Hackley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

June 24, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Leonie M. Brinkema United States District Judge.

         Pursuant 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On 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.[1] 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.

         The 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.

         In 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. Id.[2]

         Plaintiffs 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[3] 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.

         Regarding 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.

         Hackley 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 judgment.


         A. Standard of Review

         When a 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]." ...

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