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McComas v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2017

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


          Dwane L. Tinsley, United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge ordering the entry of final judgement. Presently pending before this Court are Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 11) and Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 12).

         Robert Alan McComas (hereinafter referred to as Claimant), applied for SSI on April 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning April 13, 2012.[1] The claim was denied initially on August 7, 2012, and upon reconsideration on December 20, 2012. Thereafter, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on February 19, 2013. A hearing was held on May 14, 2014, in Huntington, West Virginia. On June 27, 2014, the ALJ denied Claimant's application for SSI (Tr. at 24). On August 25, 2014, Claimant requested that the ALJ's decision be reviewed by the Appeals Council (AC) (Tr. at 7). On August 17, 2015, the AC denied Claimant's request for review (Tr. at 1-6). Thereafter, Claimant filed the instant civil action.

         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 (2015). 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. Id. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). 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(f), 416.920(f) (2015). 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). 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 residual functional capacity. 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)(2) and 416.920a(e)(2).

         In this particular case, the ALJ determined that Claimant satisfied the first inquiry because he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date, April 13, 2012 (Tr. at 13). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the severe impairments of spine disorders, osteoarthritis and chronic pain syndrome. At the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded that Claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the level of severity of any listing in Appendix 1 (Tr. at 15). The ALJ then found that Claimant has a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, reduced by nonexertional limitations[2] (Tr. at 16). The ALJ concluded that transferability of job skills is not an issue because Claimant has no past relevant work (Tr. at 22). Claimant could perform jobs such as inspector, sorter and a surveillance system monitor. The vocational expert testified that these positions exist in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. at 23). On this basis, benefits were denied. (Id.)

         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.

         Claimant's Background

         Claimant was born on July 12, 1965. Claimant graduated from high school and took auto mechanics classes in trade school during his senior year of high school (Tr. at 39). At the time of the hearing, Claimant was separated from his spouse and lived alone (Tr. at 40). Claimant has a driver's license. (Id.) Although he does not own a car, he borrowed his mother's car to drive himself to the hearing (Tr. at 41). Claimant's son lives approximately three miles from Claimant's home and Claimant's daughter lives approximately 15 miles from Claimant's home (Tr. at 43).

         The Medical Record

         This Court adopts the medical record asserted by Claimant and Defendant to the extent as follows:

         On March 1, 2012, Claimant established primary care with Lucia Soltis, M.D., at the Lincoln County Primary Care Center (Tr. at 305-307). Claimant stated that he had not been to a doctor “in a while” (Tr. at 305). Claimant complained about constant low back pain that radiated down his legs and that was worse in the morning and that he felt better with stretching. (Id.) Claimant stated that he had been taking Lodine. On examination, Claimant was in no acute distress (Tr. at 306). Claimant had tenderness to palpation of the back, scoliosis, and pain on positive straight leg raise testing. (Id.) X-rays showed mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and grade four spondylolisthesis of L5 on S1 (Tr. at 307-309). Dr. Soltis diagnosed Claimant with backache, neck pain, and lumbosacral neuritis or radiculitis (Tr. at 307). Dr. Soltis prescribed etodolac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory), gabapentin (a pain medication), and cyclobenzaprine (a muscle relaxant).

         On March 19, 2012, Claimant was seen at the Prestera Center for outpatient care for depression (Tr. at 323). Claimant reported crying most days and that he tried not to be alone. On examination, Claimant was withdrawn and had pressured speech, a blunted affect, and some suicidal ideation. However, he had a normal appearance, normal thought content, full orientation, normal memory, appropriate eye contact, and normal motor activity (Tr. at 324-325). Claimant was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (Tr. at 325). Charles R. Hoover, BA, recommended individual therapy and prescribed Celexa and Trazodone (Tr. at 326).

         At his initial psychological assessment on March 21, 2012, Claire Belgrave, M.D., reported that Claimant had a normal appearance, normal thought content, normal motor behavior, linear thought process, a cooperative attitude, full orientation, sad/anxious mood, congruent affect, fair memory, fair concentration, average intelligence, and limited insight and ...

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