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Quintal v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2017



          Dwane L. Tinsley United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before this Court is Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 12) and Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 13). This is an action seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Claimant's applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II and 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.


         Claimant, Jennifer L. Quintal, filed an application for DIB on January 11, 2011, and for SSI on January 25, 2011. Claimant alleged disability beginning August 9, 2009. Claimant's applications were denied initially on May 17, 2011, and upon reconsideration on August 18, 2011. On October 12, 2011, Claimant requested a hearing. On September 11, 2012, a hearing was held before and Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Huntington, West Virginia. The ALJ denied Claimant's claims by decision dated November 19, 2012. Claimant filed a request for review by the Appeals Council (AC) on January 22, 2013. On March 26, 2014, the AC remanded this case for further proceedings.[1] Pursuant to the AC's remand order, a video hearing was conducted on June 24, 2014. Claimant appeared in Huntington, West Virginia, with the ALJ presiding over the hearing from Mars, Pennsylvania. On July 14, 2014, the ALJ denied Claimant's claims. On September 16, 2014, Claimant filed a request for review by the AC. On October 15, 2015, the AC denied Claimant's request. Thereafter, Claimant filed the present 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 (2016). 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) (2016). 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 particular case, the ALJ determined that Claimant satisfied the first inquiry because she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from alleged onset date of August 9, 2009, through her date last insured of March 31, 2016 (Tr. at 13). Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant suffers from the following severe impairments: obesity, diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, left supraspinatus tendinopathy and impingent; left trapezius strain; moderate to severe right carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post carpal tunnel release surgery; moderate left carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post carpal tunnel release surgery; chondromalacia of the left knee status/post surgery, bipolar disorder; anxiety disorder; and personality disorder. (Id.) 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 the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work[2] (Tr. At 17). The ALJ held that Claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. at 26). The ALJ relied on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony and held that Claimant could perform the positions of price marker and routine clerk at the light level and inspector and sorter at the sedentary level (Tr. at 27). 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:

[E]vidence 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. Cellebreze, 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). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary (or the Secretary's designate, the ALJ).” Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987). 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 not supported by substantial evidence.

         Claimant's Background

         Claimant was born on July 11, 1974. She is divorced and lives in an apartment with her son. Her daughter lives across the street (Tr. at 74). On the date of the hearing, Claimant was 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds (Tr. at 50). Claimant graduated from high school (Tr. at 109). She has been taking online classes in accounting, off and on, towards a bachelor's degree since the 1990s (Tr. at 106). Claimant has taken a computer ...

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