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Walchli v. Berryhill

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

February 2, 2018

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 applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. By standing order, this case was referred to this United States Magistrate Judge to consider the pleadings and evidence, and to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition, all pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Presently pending before this Court are Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Complaint and Motion for Remand (ECF No. 12) and Defendant's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 13).


         Claimant, Robert George Walchli, filed an application for DIB on May 10, 2013. Claimant filed an application for SSI on June 18, 2013. In both applications, Claimant alleged disability beginning January 1, 2008. The DIB claim was denied initially on May 21, 2013. The SSI application was accelerated to the reconsideration level. Upon reconsideration both claims were denied on October 23, 2013. On December 3, 2013, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On January 27, 2015, Claimant appeared for a hearing in Mt. Hope, West Virginia. An ALJ presided over the video hearing from Roanoke, Virginia. Subsequently, Claimant requested a supplemental hearing to address the period of time prior to May 31, 2013, which is the earliest date of documented treatment in this case. The ALJ granted the request and held a supplemental video hearing on July 27, 2015.[1] On August 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a “partially favorable” decision[2] finding Claimant disabled beginning May 31, 2013. Claimant requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (AC). The AC denied the request for review on December 5, 2016. Subsequently, Claimant brought the present action seeking judicial review of the administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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 and 416.920 (2017). If an individual is found "not disabled" at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id. '' 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). The first inquiry under the sequence is whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment. Id. '' 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). If the claimant is not, the second inquiry is whether claimant suffers from a severe impairment. Id. '' 404.1520(c) and 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) and 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) and 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) and 416.920(f) (2017). 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 he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of time from his alleged onset date of January 1, 2008, through his date last insured (DLI) of December 31, 2012 (Tr. at 16). The ALJ stated “Prior to May 31, 2013, the date the claimant became disabled, there were no medical signs or laboratory findings to substantiate the existence of a medically determinable impairment.” The ALJ held that Claimant was not disabled prior to May 31, 2013, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision. The ALJ stated that Claimant was not under a disability at any time through December 31, 2012, the date last insured. (Id.) Under the second inquiry, the ALJ found that beginning on May 31, 2013, Claimant suffers from the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine (Tr. at 17). At the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded that since May 31, 2013, Claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the level of severity of any listing in Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ then found that since May 31, 2013, Claimant had a residual functional capacity to perform light work[3] (Tr. at 18). Even so, the ALJ held that since May 31, 2013, Claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. at 22). The ALJ held that Claimant does not have work skills from previous jobs that are transferrable to light or sedentary work occupations that Claimant has performed in the past. (Id.)

         The ALJ stated:

Considering the record as a whole, including the testimony of the claimant, the undersigned finds that the claimant's allegations regarding his symptoms and limitations are generally credible as of May 31, 2013… Since that date, descriptions of symptoms and limitations that the claimant has proved throughout the record have been consistent and persuasive (ECF No. 21).

         The ALJ held that “Since May 31, 2013, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform” (Tr. at 23).

         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). 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 ...

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