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Angelia L. v. Saul

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

July 31, 2019

ANGELIA L., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Angelia L. (“Angelia”) filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) finding her not disabled and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Angelia alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred because substantial evidence does not support (1) his evaluation of certain medical opinion evidence, and (2) his assessment of Angelia's subjective allegations of impairment. I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision. Accordingly, I RECOMMEND DENYING Angelia's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 12) and RECOMMEND GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 15).


         This Court limits its review to a determination of whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's conclusion that Angelia failed to demonstrate that she was disabled under the Act.[2] Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal citations and alterations omitted). The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed where substantial evidence supports the decision. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).


         Angelia filed for DIB on February 6, 2015, and SSI on February 2, 2015, claiming disability due to impingement syndrome, open wound on her ring finger, open fracture in her finger, closed fracture in her finger, tenosynovitis in her hand, and bicipital tenosynovitis, with an alleged onset date of September 12, 2012. R. 57, 70. Angelia was 50 years old when she applied for DIB and SSI, making her 47 years old on her alleged onset date. Id. Angelia's date last insured was December 31, 2012; thus, she must show that her disability began on or before December 31, 2012, and existed for twelve continuous months to receive DIB. Id.; 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B), (d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101(a), 404.131(a). Additionally, to receive SSI, Angelia must show that she has been disabled for at least twelve months prior to the date of filing her disability application. R. 70. The state agency denied Angelia's applications at the initial and reconsideration levels of administrative review. R. 57-93. On January 26, 2017, ALJ Theodore W. Amos held a hearing to consider Angelia's claims for DIB and SSI. R. 29-50. Counsel represented Angelia at the hearing, which included testimony from vocational expert Beth Crane. R. 29. On April 10, 2017, the ALJ entered his decision analyzing Angelia's claims under the familiar five-step process[3] and denying her claim for benefits. R. 10-24.

         The ALJ found that Angelia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 12, 2012, the alleged onset date. R. 12. The ALJ determined that Angelia suffered from the severe impairments of disorders of the fingers, hands, shoulders, and back. R. 12-13. The ALJ found Angelia's headaches to be non-severe. R. 12. The ALJ determined that Angelia's impairments, either individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, specifically considering listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), and 1.07 (fractures of the upper extremities). R. 13-14. As for mental impairments, the ALJ determined that Angelia's anxiety and depression were non-severe, and found that she had no more than mild limitations with respect to any of the “paragraph B” criteria. R. 13.

         The ALJ concluded that Angelia retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work. R. 14. Angelia's postural limitations included never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional crawling; and frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and climbing ramps and stairs. Id. Angelia could occasionally push and pull with her upper extremities, and only occasionally reach, handle, finger, and feel. R. 14-15. For environmental limitations, the ALJ found that Angelia could have occasional exposure to extreme cold, wetness, and work hazards. R. 14-15. The ALJ determined that Angelia is unable to perform her past work as a screen printing machine operator helper or cut-off saw operator, but could still perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as counter clerk, furniture rental consultant, and usher. R. 22-23. The ALJ ultimately concluded that Angelia was not disabled. R. 23-24. The Appeals Council denied Angelia's request for review on February 27, 2018. R. 1-6.


         Angelia alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred because substantial evidence does not support (1) his evaluation of certain medical opinion evidence, and (2) his assessment of Angelia's subjective allegations of impairment.

         A. Medical History

         1. Physical Impairments

         In September 2012, the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of Angelia's right hand were caught in a printing press. R. 60, 262. She had a large laceration on the fourth finger, comminuted fractures of the ungula tufts of the third and fourth fingers, and a chip fracture in the third finger. R. 265-66, 420. Follow-up x-rays showed that there were probably fractures in the fifth finger that were not visible initially. R. 502. Angelia's temporary work restriction was no use of the right hand. R. 420-21, 425, 428, 434.

         Angelia later began seeing James Dunstan, M.D., who sent her to physical therapy and recommended work restrictions. In October 2012, Angelia began physical therapy (R. 440, 445, 447-48, 453), which she continued through November (R. 459-60, 462, 466-67, 469-70, 480- 83) and December (R. 486-87, 489-90, 492, 505, 508). In November 2012, Angelia began trying to use her hands for activities of daily living, but she was still on pain medication. R. 451, 456, 473. In December 2012, Angelia developed bursitis in her right shoulder, for which she started physical therapy. R. 495. Imaging studies showed no acute abnormality. R. 500. At that time, because her hand fractures had healed, Dr. Dunstan recommended that Angelia start aggressive PT, and amended her work restriction to light sedentary work with a five-pound weight limit for her hand. R. 495, 502. Additionally, Angelia was no longer on pain medication, just ibuprofen. R. 495. Dr. Dunstan noted later that month that Angelia “can work and has been able to work, ” but there were no opportunities for modified work at her place of employment. R. 506.

         In 2013, Angelia continued attending physical therapy in January (R. 342-44, 346, 349- 50, 356-58, 362-63), February (R. 355, 373-74, 376-79, 382-83, 385), and March (R. 392, 394, 402). In January 2013, Dr. Dunstan modified Angelia's temporary restriction to light work with a ten-pound weight limit for her hand, and recommended that Angelia start trying to do more at work. R. 338. In February 2013, Dr. Dunstan modified Angelia's restriction to a twenty-pound weight limitation and said it would be safe for her to use her hand as much as possible. R. 367. In March 2013, Dr. Dunstan recommended that Angelia end PT and continue with only home exercises, as Angelia's pain was really improving, she reached vasomotor stability, and her shoulder was much improved. R. 389-90, 398. Upon discharge from PT in April 2013, Angelia had increased range of motion, grip strength, and functional use in her right hand (including lifting, carrying, and fine motor abilities), and improved range of motion and strength with decreased pain in her right shoulder. R. 406. She was still unable to perform her prior job duties because she was limited in her abilities to grip, pinch, and manipulate objections. Id. Dr. Dunstan kept the twenty-pound restriction, and in April 2013, he reported that Angelia had reached maximum medical improvement. R. 411. Angelia had no remaining limitations in her shoulder. R. 412. In May 2013, Dr. Dunstan estimated that Angelia had a partial permanent impairment of 25% in her right hand, resulting in a 23% impairment of her right upper extremity. R. 414. She had no permanent impairment in her shoulder, and she was employable and able to do work not requiring the dexterity of her former job. Id.

         In February 2015, Angelia went to the hospital after falling and injuring her left ring finger, but x-rays showed no acute abnormality. R. 270-72. Dr. Angelo Dacus later determined that Angelia had PIP arthritis in her left ring finger, for which he recommended exercises and physical therapy. R. 284. He also assessed right trigger thumb, for which Angelia received an injection. R. 284-85. In August 2016, Dr. David Hryvniak assessed Angelia for low back pain and diagnosed chronic left-side low back pain with sciatica and prescribed medication. R. 311- 12. Angelia was referred for a cervical spine MRI in August 2016 and to PT, but the record does not contain any documents for results or diagnoses from either. R. 320-21.

         At the hearing, Angelia testified that she is right-handed. R. 35. Angelia testified to not being able to do any “heavy lifting” with her right hand, and she drops things without warning. R. 37. While she primarily has problems with her right hand, Angelia had nerve replacement surgery on her left hand in 2015 and cannot bend her left ring finger. R. 38. She testified to having very little feeling in her right hand, and no feeling in the last three fingers. Id. She has feeling in her left hand. Id. Angelia testified that, in terms of daily living, she is slow to get dressed because she has to use her left hand for buttons and zippers. R. 40. Angelia still drives. She cannot pick up money, but she can write with the two good fingers in her right hand. R. 43.

         2. Medical ...

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