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Evans v. Saul

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

August 6, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.


          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 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 his favor. (ECF Nos. 10, 11).

         The undersigned has fully considered the evidence and the arguments of counsel. For the following reasons, the undersigned 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 this case be DISMISSED and removed from the docket of the Court.

         I. Procedural History

         In January 2015, Plaintiff Kenneth Charles Evans (“Claimant”), applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of August 23, 2013 due to “left knee injury, high blood pressure, enlarged heart, anxiety, high cholesterol, and arthritis in knees.” (Tr. at 104, 201-02, 225). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the application initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 104, 162-66, 168-70). Claimant also filed an SSI application that was given a protective filing date that corresponded to Claimant's DIB application. (Tr. at 104). Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing, which was held on July 17, 2017 before the Honorable William R. Paxton, Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”). (Tr. at 557-79). By written decision dated August 16, 2017, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 101-12). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on October 26, 2018 when the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (Tr. 6-10).

         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 the Administrative Proceedings. (ECF Nos. 8, 9). Claimant filed a Brief in Support of Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and the Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision to which Claimant filed a reply. (ECF Nos. 10, 11, 14). Consequently, the matter is fully briefed and ready for resolution.

         II. Claimant's Background

         Claimant was 55 years old on his alleged onset date and 58 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 562). He completed high school, as well as some college courses, and he previously worked as a security guard. (Tr. at 562-63, 576-77). Claimant understands, writes, and speaks English. (Tr. at 224).

         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).

         When a claimant alleges a mental impairment, the SSA “must follow a special technique at each level in the administrative review process, ” including the review performed by the ALJ. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(a), 416.920a(a). Under this technique, the ALJ first evaluates the claimant's pertinent signs, symptoms, and laboratory results to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment. Id. §§ 404.1520a(b), 416.920a(b). If the ALJ finds that an impairment exists, the ALJ documents the findings and proceeds with analysis, but if the ALJ does not find that a medically determinable mental impairment exists the special technique concludes. Id. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(e), 416.920a(b)-(e).

         Here, the ALJ determined as a preliminary matter that Claimant met the insured status for disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2013. (Tr. at 106, Finding No. 1). At the first step of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ confirmed that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 23, 2013, 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: chronic left knee problems status post anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, enlarged heart, obesity, arthritis of the right knee, and left shoulder impingement syndrome status post acromioplasty with bursectomy. (Id., Finding No. 3). The ALJ considered Claimant's reported diabetes mellitus, foot problems, and sleep apnea, but found the impairments to be non-severe. (Tr. at 107). Regarding mental impairments, the ALJ noted the lack of mental health evidence prior to Claimant's date last insured, finding that the record did not contain any current evidence of treatment or a diagnosis of a mental health condition. (Id.).

         Under the third inquiry, the ALJ concluded 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 107-08, Finding No. 4). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Claimant possessed:

[T]he residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibrations, and hazards.

(Tr. at 108-11, Finding No. 5). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined with the assistance of a vocational expert (“VE”) that Claimant could perform his past relevant work as a security guard. (Tr. at 111-12, Finding No. 6). Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. at 112, Finding No. 7).

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

         Claimant asserts a single challenge to the Commissioner's decision. He contends that the ALJ failed to comply with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 82-62 in determining that Claimant could return to his past relevant work as a security guard. (ECF No. 10 at 5). Claimant notes that the ALJ restricted his RFC to include no concentrated exposure to extreme cold and extreme heat, yet the ALJ concluded that Claimant could return to work as a security guard, although the position required frequent exposure to weather conditions. (Id. at 6). Claimant readily concedes that the terms “extreme cold” and “extreme heat” are defined as non-weather related conditions in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and under Agency policy. (Id.). However, Claimant believes that the ALJ intended to impose limitations for weather-related temperature extremes in the RFC, because the ALJ mentioned Claimant's knee and left shoulder impairments. (Id.). Claimant further argues that the ALJ should have asked the VE how a person working as a security guard could avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold when the position required the person to be frequently exposed to weather conditions, which Claimant posits “legitimately would include temperature extremes.” (Id. at 6-7). Claimant contends that an apparent conflict existed between the ALJ's hypothetical and the VE's description of the work, and the ALJ failed to resolve the conflict, as was required by SSR 00-4p. (Id. at 7). Claimant analogizes this matter to Koch v. Colvin, No. 2:13-CV-6780, 2014 WL 2589590 (S.D. W.Va. June 10, 2014), a case which the Court remanded due to inadequate explanation for the step four finding. Claimant emphasizes that the step four decision was critical in his case because Medical-Vocational Rule 202.06 would have directed a finding of disability if Claimant was unable to return to his past relevant work. (Id. at 7-8).

         In response to Claimant's challenge, the Commissioner asserts that Claimant is manufacturing a conflict that does not exist. (ECF No. 11 at 7). The Commissioner points out that the relevant law explicitly delineates between temperature extremes and weather conditions, a distinction which Claimant admits. Moreover, the Commissioner notes, the position of security guard does not require exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat, which are the environmental limitations in the RFC. (Id. at 7-8). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not discern a weather-related limitation; thus, Claimant's effort to create an additional RFC limitation based on what he believes the ALJ “intended” is nothing more than pure speculation-a conclusion unmoored from any findings in the ALJ's decision and any evidence in the record. (Id. at 8-9).

         In his reply to the Commissioner's response, Claimant contends that the Commissioner “is unable to cite to any evidence that definitely confirmed the ALJ intended to limit [Claimant] to temperature extremes that were nonweather-related.” (ECF No. 14 at 1-2). Claimant states that the ALJ had a duty to provide a sufficient explanation for the RFC limitations so that a reviewing court could determine if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. In Claimant's view, it is impossible to determine whether the ALJ meant to assess a non-weather related RFC limitation.

         V. Relevant Evidence

         The undersigned has reviewed all of the evidence before the Court. The information that is most pertinent to ...

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