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Griffith v. Berryhill

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

June 27, 2017

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


          Cheryl A. Eifert United Stages Magistrate Judge

         This is an action seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. The case is presently before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings as articulated in their briefs. (ECF Nos. 11, 12). Both parties have consented in writing to a decision by the United States Magistrate Judge. (ECF Nos. 4, 5). The court has fully considered the evidence and the arguments of counsel. For the reasons that follow, the Court FINDS that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and is therefore AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History

         On January 22, 2013, Plaintiff Donald Gregory Griffith (“Claimant”) completed applications for DIB and SSI alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2012 due to uncontrollable high blood pressure; “hepatitis C; “eye stroke double vision, vision blockage; prediabetes, [and] pre-glaucoma.” (Tr. at 226, 233, 259). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the applications initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 99-112, 202-211). Claimant filed a request for a hearing, which was held on December 3, 2014 before the Honorable Jane A. Crawford, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 26-53). By written decision dated December 31, 2014, the ALJ determined that Claimant was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. at 7-25). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 2, 2016 when the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (Tr. at 1-5).

         On August 3, 2016, Claimant filed the present civil action seeking judicial review of the administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF No. 2). The Commissioner filed an Answer and a Transcript of the Proceedings on October 7, 2016. (ECF Nos. 9, 10). Thereafter, the parties filed their briefs in support of judgment on the pleadings. (ECF Nos. 11, 12). The time period for the filing of a reply has expired. Accordingly, this matter is fully briefed and ready for disposition.

         II. Claimant's Background

         Claimant was 52 years old at the time of his alleged onset of disability and 55 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 18, 166). He has a tenth grade education and communicates in English. (Tr. at 258, 260). Claimant previously worked as an Ironworker. (Tr. at 260).

         III. Summary of ALJ's Findings

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5), a claimant seeking disability benefits has the burden of proving a disability. See Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (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 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). The Social Security regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation process for the adjudication of disability claims. If an individual is found “not disabled” at any step of the process, further inquiry is unnecessary and benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step in the sequence is determining whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not, then the second step requires a determination of whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. If severe impairment is present, the third inquiry is whether this impairment meets or equals any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the Administrative Regulations No. 4 (the “Listing”). Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, then the claimant is found disabled and awarded benefits.

         However, if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the adjudicator must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is the measure of the claimant's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity despite the limitations of his or her impairments. Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). After making this determination, the fourth step is to ascertain whether the claimant's impairments prevent the performance of past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the impairments do prevent the performance of past relevant work, then the claimant has established a prima facie case of disability, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate, in the fifth and final step of the process, that the claimant is able to perform other forms of substantial gainful activity, given the claimant's remaining physical and mental capacities, age, education, and prior work experiences. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); see also McLain v. Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner must establish two things: (1) that the claimant, considering his or her age, education, skills, work experience, and physical shortcomings has the capacity to perform an alternative job, and (2) that this specific job exists in significant numbers in the national economy. McLamore v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 572, 574 (4th Cir. 1976).

         Here, the ALJ determined as a preliminary matter that Claimant met the insured status for disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2015. (Tr. at 12, Finding No. 1). At the first step of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ confirmed that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (Id., Finding No. 2). At the second step of the evaluation, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: “hypertension, obesity, deficit in visual acuity, and mild loss of field of vision.” (Id., Finding No. 3). The ALJ also considered Claimant's Hepatitis C, but concluded that such impairment was nonsevere. (Tr. at 12-13). As for the third inquiry, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the impairments contained in the Listing. (Tr. at 13-14, Finding No. 4). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Claimant possessed:

[T]he residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) with the following additional limitations: The claimant cannot work with vibrating equipment; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and cannot work at unprotected heights or around dangerous machinery. The claimant has some difficulty with his vision but can avoid hazards in the workplace.

(Tr. at 14-18, Finding No. 5). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Claimant was unable to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. at 18, Finding No. 6). Under the fifth and final inquiry, the ALJ reviewed Claimant's prior work experience, age, and education in combination with his RFC to determine his ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. at 18-19, Finding Nos. 7-10). The ALJ considered that (1) Claimant was born in 1959, and was defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age on the alleged disability onset date, but subsequently changed age category to advanced age; (2) he had limited education and could communicate in English; and (3) transferability of job skills was not material to the disability determination because the Medical-Vocational Rules (the “Grids”) supported a finding that Claimant was “not disabled, ” regardless of his transferable job skills. (Tr. at 18, Finding Nos. 7-9). Given these factors, Claimant's RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Claimant could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, including unskilled work as a janitor cleaner, warehouse worker, or bottling line attendant at the medium exertional level. (Tr. at 18-19, Finding No. 10). Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. at 19-20, Finding No. 11).

         IV. Claimant's Challenge to the Commissioner's Decision

         Claimant raises one challenge to the Commissioner's decision; that being, the ALJ erred by finding Claimant capable of medium exertional level work. According to Claimant, the evidence unequivocally demonstrates that he is limited to sedentary work. Thus, Grid Rule 201.10 directs a finding that he was disabled as of the date of his alleged onset of disability.[1] (ECF No. 11 at 4-6). In the alternative, Claimant contends that even if he were restricted to light exertional level work, the ALJ should have deemed him disabled as of his fifty-fifth birthday under Grid Rule 202.02. (Id. at 6). In support of his argument, Claimant cites his age, education, previous work experience, testimony, and the findings of consultative examining physicians, Eugene Lin, M.D., and Paul W. Craig, M.D., as well as those of treating physician, Zachary Hansen, M.D. (Id. at 5-6). In response to Claimant's arguments, the Commissioner contends that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Claimant was capable of medium level work. (ECF No. 12 at 8-12).

         V. Relevant Evidence

         The court has reviewed the transcript of proceedings in its entirety, including the treatment records, medical source opinions, and Claimant's statements. The following summary is confined to those entries most relevant to the issue in dispute.

         A. Treatment Records

         On February 11, 2011, Claimant presented to Damia Hayman, Certified Family Nurse Practitioner (“CFNP”), at Valley Health Systems (“Valley Health”) for follow-up of hypertension, insomnia, and generalized anxiety. (Tr. at 356-57). Claimant's physical examination was normal and his chronic medical conditions were stable. Nurse Hayman observed that Claimant's blood pressure was elevated at 188/104 in the left arm and 156/86 in the right arm, but also noted that he had not taken his anti-hypertensive medications for three weeks. Nurse Hayman explained to Claimant the importance of never being without his medications and instructed him to continue with his current treatment regimen. Claimant verbalized his understanding.

         Later that year, on October 20, 2011, Claimant returned to Valley Health for a blood pressure check. (Tr. at 354-55). Claimant stated that he felt “good, ” although his blood pressure was measured at 190/124. Claimant admitted that he had run out of his blood pressure medications and had not taken any for two days. His blood pressure was rechecked, and this time measured 168/90. Nurse Hayman emphasized the need for Claimant taking all of his medications as prescribed. Upon learning that Claimant was uninsured, Nurse Hayman educated Claimant on available assistance programs and sliding scales to help him pay for his prescriptions. She also provided him with medication samples.

         Claimant returned ten days later, on October 30, 2011, for follow-up. (Tr. at 352-53). He reported feeling good, but his blood pressure was measured at 188/102. Claimant was given Clonidine, and his pressure dropped to 158/96, with a reading of 138/90 in the left arm. Claimant also reported a history of Hepatitis C; although, he indicated that he had never gotten any treatment for the illness. Nurse Hayman documented that Claimant needed to stop smoking and drinking and needed to get medical care for Hepatitis C. She also instructed Claimant not to use salt in his diet and to return in one week. Claimant returned on November 15, and his blood pressure was 159/96 when taken automatically and 148/92 when checked manually. (Tr. at 351).

         Over one year later, on November 7, 2012, Claimant had a follow-up visit at Valley Health with Julie Vannoy, Certified Nurse Practitioner (“CNP-BC”). (Tr. at 350). Claimant reported that his blood pressure had been “off” since July 2012; he had a history of Hepatitis C; and he was experiencing double vision, headache, and dizziness. Claimant's blood pressure was taken, and it measured 200/118. However, he denied chest pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath. His physical examination was normal, and he was neurologically intact. Nurse Vannoy assessed Claimant to be in hypertensive crisis. He was administered Clonidine, and when his blood pressure was rechecked 15 minutes later, it had decreased to 190/110. Claimant was prescribed Clonidine for hypertension, Exforge for blurred vision, and Celexa for generalized anxiety disorder.

         The following month, on December 12, 2012, Claimant returned to Valley Health and saw Nurse Vannoy. (Tr. at 345). Claimant reported that Exforge was helping to reduce his blood pressure, but admitted that he had run out of the medication several days earlier. Claimant's blood pressure was taken, and it measured 202/133. His blood pressure was re-checked twice during the visit and decreased to 196/124 and then to 187/122. With respect to his Hepatitis C, Claimant still had not received treatment. He explained that at the time of his diagnosis, he was told by a gastroenterologist that treatment could not be initiated until Claimant was alcohol-free for six months. However, Claimant had continued to drink. Nurse Vannoy encouraged Claimant to stop using alcohol, to follow-up with a gastroenterologist, and to continue taking his medications. She told him to return for a blood pressure check in one week.

         One week later, Claimant returned as instructed. (Tr. at 344). He denied chest pain, palpitations, or shortness of breath, and his blood pressure was 174/105. A review of systems revealed no new complaints. Claimant's physical examination was normal, except for his blood pressure and weight. He was prescribed Metformin to treat diabetes, Metoprolol for high blood pressure, and Ambien for insomnia. Nurse Vannoy counseled Claimant regarding the need to watch his diet and to exercise.

         On January 2, 2013, [2] Claimant presented to Valley Health for regular follow-up. (Tr. at 379). His blood pressure was 187/115, but he had not taken his medication that morning. Claimant reported that his blood pressure was generally measuring 155/90 at home. He denied chest pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath. Claimant had no particular complaints on a review of systems and his physical examination was normal, except for his blood pressure and weight, which was 266 pounds. Claimant ...

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