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Rice v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2018

JOHN A. RICE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          Cheryl A. Eifert United States Magistrate Judge

         This action seeks a review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's applications for a period of disability and 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 matter is assigned to the Honorable Robert C. Chambers, United States District Judge, and was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge by standing order for submission of proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Presently pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings and the Commissioner's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision, requesting judgment in her favor. (ECF Nos. 10, 13).

         Having fully considered the record and the arguments of the parties, the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge respectfully RECOMMENDS that Plaintiff's request for judgment on the pleadings be DENIED; the Commissioner's request for judgment on the pleadings be GRANTED; the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED; and that this case be DISMISSED and removed from the docket of the Court.

         I. Procedural History

         On March 12, 2013 and January 30, 2015, respectively, Plaintiff John A. Rice (“Claimant”), completed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2012, (Tr. at 285, 321), due to “loss of eyesight, heart murmor [sic], depression [and] heart issues.” (Tr. at 333). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Claimant's applications initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 161, 167). Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing, which was initially held on November 25, 2014, before the Honorable Robert M. Butler, Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”). (Tr. at 106-134). During the hearing, the ALJ determined that a review of additional medical records concerning Claimant's alleged impairments of chest pain, migraine headaches, depression, and vision issues was required prior to rendering a decision. (Tr. at 130-34). Consequently, a supplemental hearing was held on June 4, 2015. (Tr. at 29-94). By written decision dated August 17, 2015, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 11-22). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 27, 2017 when the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (Tr. at 1-3).

         Claimant timely filed the present civil action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF No. 2). The Commissioner subsequently filed an Answer opposing Claimant's complaint and a Transcript of Proceedings. (ECF Nos. 7, 9). Thereafter, Claimant filed a Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings, (ECF No. 10) and the Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision. (ECF No. 13). Therefore, the matter is fully briefed and ready for resolution.

         II. Claimant's Background

         Claimant was 41 years old at the time that he filed the application for DIB benefits and 43 years old at the time he filed the application for SSI benefits and on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 11, 285, 321). He did not complete high school, but does communicate in English. (Tr. at 332, 334). Claimant previously worked as a laborer, grocery stock clerk, and blacktop sealer. (Tr. at 118-20, 334).

         III. Summary of ALJ's Decision

         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, 2012. (Tr. at 13, Finding No. 1). At the first step of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. at 13, Finding No. 2). At the second step of the evaluation, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, metabolic syndrome, hyperlipidemia, migraines, obesity, coronary artery disease, osteoarthritis of the bilateral shoulders, loss of visual acuity, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder.” (Tr. at 13-14, Finding No. 3).

         Under 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 14-16, Finding No. 4). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Claimant possessed:

[T]he residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) consisting of lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing and walking for about 6 hours and sitting for up to 6 hours, with an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. The claimant is able to perform work that does not involve concentrated exposure to extreme heat, chemicals, poorly ventilated areas, and environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts and gases. The claimant is able to perform work that does not involve even moderate exposure to unprotected heights or use of moving machinery. The claimant is limited to occupations, which do not require more than frequent near and far acuity. The claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, make judgments on simple work related decisions, interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers in a routine work setting, and respond to usual work situations and no changes in a routine work setting.

(Tr. at 16-20, Finding No. 5). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 21, Finding No. 6). Under the fifth and final inquiry, the ALJ reviewed Claimant's past work experience, age, and education in combination with his RFC to determine his ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. at 21-22, Finding Nos. 7-10). The ALJ considered that (1) Claimant was born in 1971, and was defined as a younger individual age 18-44 on the alleged disability onset date; (2) he had a limited education and could communicate in English; and (3) transferability of job skills was not material to the disability determination because Claimant's past relevant work was unskilled. (Tr. at 21, 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 work as a cashier, fast food worker, and merchandise marker at the unskilled, light exertional level. (Tr. at 21-22, Finding No. 10). Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, and was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. at 22, Finding No. 11).

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

         Claimant raises one challenge to the Commissioner's decision. Claimant contends that the ALJ erred when disregarding testimony by the vocational expert in which she opined that an individual would not be employable if he needed to miss more than one day of work per month and was off task more than 15% of a work day. According to Claimant, his frequent chest pain and migraine headaches would invariably cause him to exceed those parameters. (ECF No. 10 at 5-6).

         In response, the Commissioner argues that there is no medical support for Claimant's allegation that he would miss more than one day of work per month and would be off task in excess of 15% each work day. (ECF No. 13 at 10-15). Moreover, the Commissioner points out that the vocational expert's testimony was not specific to Claimant; rather it was offered as a generality. The Commissioner adds that the testimony was not in response to a hypothetical question that accurately reflected Claimant's RFC; accordingly, the ALJ had no obligation to give the testimony any evidentiary weight.

         V. Relevant Evidence

         The undersigned has reviewed all of the evidence before the Court. The following evidence is most ...


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