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Grisham v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

January 9, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


THOMAS M. DiGIROLAMO, Magistrate Judge.

Gregory P. Grisham ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying his claim 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, 1381-83(c). Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Pl.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 14) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Def.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 18). No hearing is deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI on July 3, 2008 alleging disability since March 1, 2005 (subsequently amended to February 27, 2008) on the basis of arthritis, partial deafness, seizures, vertigo and bipolar disorder. R. at 12, 184-190, 205. His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. R. at 95-99, 101-04. On February 9, 2011, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. at 36-82. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. In a decision dated June 22, 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. R. at 9-23. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision subject to judicial review. R. at 1-4.

II. ALJ's Decision

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI using the sequential processes set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), history of pneumonia and puemothorax, bipolar disorder, history of poly-substance dependence, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, and hearing loss. At step three, the ALJ found that his impairments did not meet or equal the Listings of Impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt, P, app. 1. The ALJ concluded at step four that, given his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, he concluded that Claimant was not disabled. R. at 9-23.

III. Standard of Review

The role of this court on review is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(1994 & Supp. V 1999); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence presented. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). It is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion, and must be sufficient to justify a refusal to direct a verdict if the case were before a jury. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). This court cannot try the case de novo or resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

IV. Discussion

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred (1) in his RFC assessment; (2) in his treatment of the opinion of the treating physician; (3) in the formulation of the hypothetical to the VE; and (4) in his analysis of the Listings. The first three arguments will be addressed together because of the overlap of issues.

A. RFC Assessment, Treating Physicians and VE Hypothetical

The ALJ found Claimant limited to light work with various postural limitations. R. at 17. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have given more weight to the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Willis, who opined that he was only capable of less than sedentary work. R. at 468-71. Specifically, Dr. Willis found that Claimant could not sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour workday, cannot stand for 2 hours out of an 8 hour workday and cannot lift and carry objects weighing up to 10 pounds. R. at 469. Dr. Willis additionally found that Claimant's impairments required him to lay down for 4 hours of an 8 hour workday, would be absent from work for a minimum of 30 days during the work year and his hearing impairment required him to see the speaker in order to interpret what was being said. R. at 470-71.

Under the "treating physician rule", a treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical evidence and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence of record. See 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir.2001). However, "if a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 590 (4th Cir.1996); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(4), 416.927(d)(4). "Under such circumstances, the ALJ holds the discretion to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face of persuasive contrary evidence." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178.

Dr. Willis treated Claimant for a period of over two years. In reviewing Dr. Willis' opinion, the ALJ afforded it minimal weight as "it is inconsistent with the medical evidence which indicates the claimant was renovating a house in June 2010 (Exhibit 27F/1[R. at 437]) and riding his bike in June 2009 (Exhibit 11F[R. at 387])." R. at 21. While the record certainly contains notations that Claimant was renovating his house and reported enjoyment riding his bike, the ALJ also cited other medical evidence inconsistent with Dr. Willis' opinion. For example, the ALJ noted a January 15, 2009 consultative examination showed that Claimant's physical examination was "basically normal with no evidence of acute inflammatory process in the major joints oh his body." R. at 18, 372-75. Claimant walked without the assistance of a cane or crutch and was able to stand on his toes and heels as well as squat and rise from a squatting position. Id. Dr. Hunt also noted that Claimant exhibited normal strength in both his upper and lower extremities. Id. The ALJ also thoroughly reviewed both X-Ray and MRI findings but noted that treatment notes reflected Claimant was traveling and swimming as well as renovating a house and riding his bike as mentioned above. R. at 19. See also R. at 331 (treatment notes reflecting 5/5 motor ...

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