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Jeffrey S. v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

JEFFREY S., [1]Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.[2]



         Plaintiff Jeffrey S. asks this Court to review the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. The case is before me by the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). ECF Nos. 9, 10. Having considered the administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the applicable law, I find that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         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), 1383(c)(3); see 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 considers 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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 416.920(a)(4).[3] 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 September 2014, Jeffrey filed for DIB and SSI alleging that he was disabled because of anxiety disorder, stroke, Hepatitis C, nerve damage, and problems with his neck, back, hip, and knee. See Administrative Record (“R.”) 24, 67-68, 79-80, 206-07, 208-22, ECF No. 13. He was fifty years old, or a person “closely approaching advanced age” under the regulations, when he allegedly became disabled in April 2014. R. 33, 67, 79; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). Disability Determination Services (“DDS”), the state agency, denied his claims initially in January 2015, R. 65-90, and upon reconsideration that August, R. 91-124. In December 2016, Jeffrey appeared with counsel and testified at an administrative hearing before ALJ Mary Peltzer. R. 45-59. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified at this hearing. R. 60-63.

         ALJ Peltzer issued an unfavorable decision on March 30, 2017. R. 24-34. She found that Jeffrey had four “severe impairments: degenerative disc disease-lumbar spine, history of left femur fracture, anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder.” R. 24. All other medical impairments referenced in the record, including noted “degenerative changes in his cervical spine and a left rotator cuff tear, ” were deemed non-severe. Id. Jeffrey's severe physical impairments did not meet or equal the relevant musculoskeletal Listings primarily because he could still “ambulate effectively.” R. 27 (citing 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§ 1.00, 1.02, 1.04, 1.06). His severe mental impairments did not meet or equal the relevant Listings because they caused “no limitations” in his capacities for “adapting and managing” himself; overall “mild limitations” in “understanding, remembering, or applying information” and “concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace”; and “no more than moderate limitations” in “interacting with others.” R. 28 (citing 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§ 12.04(B), 12.06(B) (2017)).

         ALJ Peltzer then evaluated Jeffrey's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that he could do “light work”[4] with additional limitations:

[O]ccasional stairs and ramps; no ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequent stooping; occasional kneeling, crouching, and crawling; occasional exposure [to] workplace hazards such as dangerous moving machinery, but no exposure to unprotected heights. He can perform unskilled work at an SVP 1 or 2 involving simple, routine tasks with no contact with the general public and occasional contact with supervisors and coworkers, with no tandem work assignments.

         R. 29. The limitation to “unskilled” work ruled out Jeffrey's return to his past relevant work. R. 32-33. Finally, based on this RFC finding and the VE's testimony, ALJ Peltzer concluded at step five that Jeffrey was not disabled because he still could perform certain light, unskilled occupations (marker, inspector/grader) that offered a significant number of jobs in the national economy. R. 34. The Appeals Council denied Jeffrey's request for review, R. 1-3, and this appeal followed.

         III. Discussion

         Jeffrey challenges ALJ Peltzer's determination of his RFC, arguing the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the medical opinion of his treating physician, Zeljko Stjepanovic, M.D., regarding his physical limitations and instead gave greater weight to the DDS physicians who did not examine him. See generally Pl.'s Br. 15-20. Jeffrey further challenges the weight ALJ Peltzer gave to the opinion of his “treating” nurse practitioner Nancy Hussar, L-QMHP, regarding his mental limitations because she gave greater weight to one of the DDS psychiatrists who did not examine him. Id. at 20-25. His arguments are not persuasive.

         A claimant's RFC is his “maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting” for eight hours a day, five days a week despite his medical impairments and related symptoms.[5] SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996) (emphasis omitted). It is a factual finding “made by the [ALJ] based on all the relevant evidence in the case record, ” Felton-Miller v. Astrue, 459 Fed.Appx. 226, 230-31 (4th Cir. 2011), and it should reflect any credibly established “functional limitations or restrictions caused by medical impairments and their related symptoms, ” including pain, that affect the claimant's “capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities, ” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1, *2. See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638-40; Reece v. Colvin, 7:14cv428, 2016 WL 658999, at *6-7 (W.D. Va. Jan. 25, 2016), adopted by 2016 WL 649889 (W.D. Va. Feb. 17, 2016).

         The ALJ has broad (but not unbounded) discretion to determine whether an alleged symptom or functional limitation is supported by or consistent with other relevant evidence, including objective evidence of the underlying medical impairment, in the claimant's record. See Hines, 453 F.3d at 564 n.3; Perry v. Colvin, No. 2:15cv1145, 2016 WL 1183155, at *5 (S.D. W.Va. Mar. 28, 2016) (citing Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974)). Generally, a reviewing court will affirm the ALJ's RFC findings when it is clear that she considered all the relevant evidence under the correct legal standards, see Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267-72 (4th Cir. 2017), and her written decision built an “accurate and logical bridge from that evidence to [her] conclusion” that the claimant is not disabled, Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018) (quotation marks and other brackets omitted).

         A. Summary

         1. ...

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