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Parsons v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

November 18, 2016

WILLIE KENT PARSONS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

          Omar J. Aboulhosn United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying the Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. By Order entered January 5, 2016 (Document No. 8.), this case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to consider the pleadings and evidence, and to submit Proposed Findings of Fact and Recommendation for disposition, all pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Presently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Document Nos. 11 and 12.)

         The Plaintiff, Willie Kent Parsons (hereinafter referred to as “Claimant”), protectively filed his applications for Title II and Title XVI benefits on September 24, 2012, alleging disability since that date as a result of sleep apnea and kidney stones.[1] (Tr. at 369.) His claims were denied on December 28, 2012 (Tr. at 130-135.) and again upon reconsideration on February 11, 2013. (Tr. at 144-146, 147-149.) Thereafter, Claimant filed a written request for hearing on February 22, 2013. (Tr. at 142-143.) An administrative hearing was held on January 24, 2014 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michele Kelley. (Tr. at 25-67.) The ALJ heard the testimonies of Claimant (Tr. at 37-52.) and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Anthony T. Michael, Jr. (Tr. at 53-65.) Because Claimant's representative requested a psychological consultative evaluation during opening statement, the record was left open to accommodate same. (Tr. at 35, 77-78.) Another administrative hearing was held on February 3, 2015[2], before ALJ Jerry Meade (Tr. at 68-89.), who heard additional testimony by Claimant. (Tr. at 73-77.) Another supplemental hearing was scheduled in order to allow time for an updated opinion from the consultative evaluator, Dr. Stuart Gitlow, M.D. (Tr. at 77-78.) Subsequently, on April 15, 2015, a hearing was held before ALJ Meade again, during which Claimant testified again (Tr. at 82-85.) as well as VE Gina Baldwin. (Tr. at 86-88.) On July 2, 2015, the ALJ entered a decision finding Claimant was not disabled. (Tr. at 8-24.)

         The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on September 10, 2015 when the Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review. (Tr. at 1-5.) On October 27, 2015, Claimant timely brought the present action seeking judicial review of the administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Document No. 2.)

         Standard

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5) and § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i), a claimant for disability benefits has the burden of proving a disability. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 774 (4th Cir. 1972). A disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . ..” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Social Security Regulations establish a “sequential evaluation” for the adjudication of disability claims. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found “not disabled” at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If a severe impairment is present, the third inquiry is whether such impairment meets or equals any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the Administrative Regulations No. 4. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If it does, the claimant is found disabled and awarded benefits. Id. If it does not, the fourth inquiry is whether the claimant's impairments prevent the performance of past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). By satisfying inquiry four, the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability. Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner, McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983), and leads to the fifth and final inquiry: whether the claimant is able to perform other forms of substantial gainful activity, considering claimant's remaining physical and mental capacities and claimant's age, education and prior work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The Commissioner must show two things: (1) that the claimant, considering claimant's age, education, work experience, skills and physical shortcomings, has the capacity to perform an alternative job, and (2) that this specific job exists in the national economy. McLamore v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 572, 574 (4th Cir. 1976).

         When a claimant alleges a mental impairment, the Social Security Administration “must follow a special technique at every level in the administrative review process.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(a) and 416.920a(a). First, the SSA evaluates the claimant's pertinent symptoms, signs and laboratory findings to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment and documents its findings if the claimant is determined to have such an impairment. Second, the SSA rates and documents the degree of functional limitation resulting from the impairment according to criteria as specified in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c) and 416.920a(c). Those sections provide as follows:

(c) Rating the degree of functional limitation. (1) Assessment of functional limitations is a complex and highly individualized process that requires us to consider multiple issues and all relevant evidence to obtain a longitudinal picture of your overall degree of functional limitation. We will consider all relevant and available clinical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of your symptoms, and how your functioning may be affected by factors including, but not limited to, chronic mental disorders, structured settings, medication and other treatment.
(2) We will rate the degree of your functional limitation based on the extent to which your impairment(s) interferes with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. Thus, we will consider such factors as the quality and level of your overall functional performance, any episodic limitations, the amount of supervision or assistance you require, and the settings in which you are able to function. See 12.00C through 12.00H of the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1 to this subpart for more information about the factors we consider when we rate the degree of your functional limitation.
(3) We have identified four broad functional areas in which we will rate the degree of your functional limitation: Activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. See 12.00C of the Listings of Impairments.
(4) When we rate the degree of limitation in the first three functional areas (activities of daily living, social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace), we will use the following five-point scale: None, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme. When we rate the degree of limitation in the fourth functional area (episodes of decompensation), we will use the following four-point scale: None, one or two, three, four or more. The last point on each scale represents a degree of limitation that is incompatible with the ability to do any gainful activity.

         Third, after rating the degree of functional limitation from the claimant's impairment(s), the SSA determines their severity. A rating of “none” or “mild” in the first three functional areas (activities of daily living; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace) and “none” in the fourth (episodes of decompensation) will yield a finding that the impairment(s) is/are not severe unless evidence indicates more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(1) and 416.920a(d)(1).[3] Fourth, if the claimant's impairment(s) is/are deemed severe, the SSA compares the medical findings about the severe impairment(s) and the rating and degree and functional limitation to the criteria of the appropriate listed mental disorder to determine if the severe impairment(s) meet or are equal to a listed mental disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(2) and 416.920a(d)(2). Finally, if the SSA finds that the claimant has a severe mental impairment(s) which neither meets nor equals a listed mental disorder, the SSA assesses the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(3) and 416.920a(d)(3). The Regulation further specifies how the findings and conclusion reached in applying the technique must be documented at the ALJ and Appeals Council levels as follows:

At the administrative law judge hearing and the Appeals Council levels, the written decision issued by the administrative law judge and the Appeals Council must incorporate the pertinent findings and conclusions based on the technique. The decision must show the significant history, including examination and laboratory findings, and the functional limitations that were considered in reaching a conclusion about the severity of the mental impairment(s). The decision must include a specific finding as to the degree of limitation in each of the functional areas described in paragraph (c) of this section.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(e)(4) and 416.920a(e)(4).

         In this particular case, the ALJ determined that Claimant last met the requirements for insured worker status through December 31, 2017. (Tr. at 13, Finding No. 1.) Moreover, the ALJ determined that Claimant satisfied the first inquiry because he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Id., Finding No. 2.) Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; obesity; borderline intellectual functioning; major depressive disorder; and antisocial personality disorder. (Id., Finding No. 3.) At the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded that Claimant's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 16, Finding No. 4.) Next, the ALJ found that Claimant had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in the regulations:

He can occasionally crawl and climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel and crouch. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat; irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas; and hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. He can have only occasional changes in the work setting. He can have occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Tr. at 19, Finding No. 5.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant was incapable of performing past relevant work. (Tr. at 23, Finding No. 6.) At step five of the analysis, the ALJ found that Claimant was a younger individual, and that there had been no change in age category to date. (Id., Finding No. 7.) The ALJ found that Claimant had a limited education, and was able to communicate in English. (Id., Finding No. 8.) Employing the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework, the ALJ determined that Claimant was not disabled, that transferability of job skills was immaterial to the determination of disability, as Claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity indicated that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (Id., Finding Nos. 9 and 10.) On that basis, the ALJ found Claimant was not disabled. (Tr. at 24, Finding No. 11.)

         Scope of Review

         The sole issue before this Court is whether the final decision of the Commissioner denying the claim is supported by substantial evidence. In Blalock v. Richardson, substantial evidence was defined as:

evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is ‘substantial evidence.'

Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1972) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). Additionally, the Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with resolving conflicts in the evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Nevertheless, the Courts “must not abdicate their traditional functions; they cannot escape their duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974).

         A careful review of the record reveals the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.

         Issue on Appeal

         This appeal primarily concerns whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of State agency psychological examiner Kara Gettman-Hughes, M.A. in assessing Claimant's RFC and ultimately, in denying him benefits.

         Claimant's Background

         At all times herein, Claimant was considered a “younger individual” pursuant to the Regulations; he was thirty-five years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (Tr. at 23.) See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). He completed the eleventh grade and had attended special education for all subjects. (Tr. at 763, 765.) His past relevant work experience included automotive repair, a fast food ...


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