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Gibson v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, 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 applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under 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. 12) and Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 13).

         On November 18, 2011, Regina Gail Gibson (Claimant) filed an application for DIB and SSI alleging disability as of January 27, 2012.[1] The Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant) denied Claimant's applications initially on February 17, 2012 and on reconsideration June 11, 2012. Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on July 10, 2012. On December 10, 2013, an ALJ presided over the hearing in Charleston, West Virginia. On March 7, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Claimant not disabled under the Act. On March 26, 2014, Plaintiff timely filed a request for review by the Appeals Council. On June 16, 2015, the Appeals Council issued a final decision denying Plaintiff's request for review. Thereafter, Claimant filed the instant civil action.

         Claimant's Background

         Claimant was born on March 3, 1963. On the date of the hearing she was 50 years old. She received her GED and has a “two-year equivalent, an associate's degree, in data processing with emphasis on accounting” (Tr. at 62). Claimant's 21 year old son with alleged intellectual impairment lives with Claimant (Tr. at 78-79). She has a daughter that lives in Florida (Tr. at 81). Claimant has a driver's license (Tr. at 80).

         Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5), a claimant for disability 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 (2015). If an individual is found "not disabled" at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. ' 404.1520(a). The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. ' 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. ' 404.1520(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). 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). 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) (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).

         In this case, the ALJ determined that Claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 27, 2012, the amended alleged onset date (Tr. at 24). The ALJ found that Claimant has the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, status post reconstructive surgery left ankle, tenosynovitis, plantar fasciitis, heel spur syndrome with bursitis and gastrocnemius equinus contracture, status-post right foot lipoma, degenerative disc disease, lumbargo, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and impingement syndrome right shoulder (Tr. at 24-25). Under the second step, the ALJ found that Claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments (Tr. at 28). The ALJ found that Claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work except she can perform occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, climbing ramp and stair, ladders, ropes and scaffolding. She would be limited to frequent handling, fingering, feeling with the bilateral upper extremities and frequent overhead reaching with the right upper extremity, dominant side. (Id.) The ALJ held that Claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a daycare center worker, cashier/concession stand and as a children's attendant (Tr. at 36). The ALJ held that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can also perform” (Tr. at 37). Upon this basis, the ALJ denied Claimant's applications for DIB and SSI.

         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 Amust 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.

         The Medical Record

         The Court has reviewed all evidence of record, including the medical evidence of record, and will discuss it further below as it relates to Claimant's arguments.

         Claimant's Challenges to the Commissioner's Decision

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ did not adequately address and analyze the combined effect of Claimant's impairments and failed to consider all of Claimant's limitations in the RFC (ECF No. 12). Claimant argues that the ALJ did not adequately address Claimant's obesity and diabetes mellitus. Claimant avers that the ALJ failed to properly assess Claimant's credibility and to reference or discuss the opinion of Dr. Lana Hofeldt. (Id.) In response, Defendant asserts that the ALJ properly considered the combined effects of Claimant's impairments (ECF No. 13). Defendant avers that the ALJ properly assessed Claimant's credibility and correctly addressed the emergency room record for Claimant's temporary exacerbation of back pain.


         After step three of the ALJ's sequential analysis, but before deciding whether a claimant can perform past relevant work at step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC. An individual's RFC is the capacity an individual possesses despite the limitations caused by physical or mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); see also S.S.R. 96-8p. The RFC is based on all relevant medical and other evidence in the record and may include a claimant's own description of limitations arising from alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3); see also S.S.R. 96-8p. "[T]he residual functional capacity 'assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions' listed in the regulations." Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting S.S.R. 96-8p). Where a claimant has numerous impairments, including non-severe impairments, the ALJ must consider their cumulative effect in making a disability determination. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); see ...

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