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Towers v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 30, 2014

PATRICIA CAROLYN TOWERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Patricia Carolyn Towers commenced this action against the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for social security benefits and supplemental security income benefits. See Complaint (Document No. 1). The matter was initially assigned to the undersigned for full case management and dispositive motions. See Order Referring Case to Magistrate Judge (Document No. 15). However, the parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all purposes, and the matter was assigned to the undersigned. See Consent to Proceed Before A United States Magistrate Judge for All Purposes (Document No. 17). Pending for determination are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal (Document No. 10) and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance (Document No. 11). Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, the administrative record, and the entire record herein, the undersigned will deny Plaintiff's motion, and grant Defendant's motion.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Patricia Carolyn Towers, who was born in 1961, applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on August 1, 2007. Administrative Record ("AR") (Document No. 7-5) at 4-6, 12-18. At that time, she reported that she became disabled on February 21, 2007 due to gout, arthritis, hepatitis C, diabetes, high blood pressure, emphysema, and lower back pain. AR (Document No. 7-7) at 22. Her past work included employment as an office cleaner, housekeeper, fork lift operator, and cashier. Id. at 23. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied by the agency, and also upon reconsideration. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Plaintiff's Memorandum") at 1-2.

Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. at 2. The ALJ conducted a hearing on October 27, 2009 at which he heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and James Ryan, a vocational expert. AR (Document No. 7-2) at 21. The ALJ also considered the medical records and treatment notes offered by Plaintiff; treatment notes from Dr. Edgar Potter; Dr. John Cohen, orthopedic surgeon; Dr. Joel Taubin, agency consultative physician; Dr. Jacqueline McMorris, agency medical consultant; and Dr. Eric Marshall. The ALJ issued his findings on December 9, 2009, including his determination that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits because "[Plaintiff] has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from February 21, 2007 through the date of [his] decision." Id. at 28. The ALJ set forth his findings with respect to each step of the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). Id. at 23-27. The ALJ found that Plaintiff "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 21, 2007, the alleged onset date." Id. at 23 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from gout, obesity, degenerative joint disease of left ankle, degenerative disc disease, hepatitis C, and diabetes but further determined that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. [§§] 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)." AR (Document No. 7-2) at 23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of sedentary work" and that she "requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing." Id. at 24. In so finding, the ALJ "considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence... [, ] [including] opinion evidence[.]" Id.

The ALJ further found that Plaintiff "is unable to perform any past relevant work" as an "office cleaner (medium/semi-skilled), housekeeper (light/skilled), fork lift operator (medium/semi-skilled), and cashier (light/semi-skilled)." Id. at 27. However, the ALJ concluded that "[b]ased on the testimony of the vocational expert... considering the [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the [Plaintiff] is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." Id. at 28. Accordingly, he concluded that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 21, 2007 through the date of this decision." Id.

Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Administration Office of Disability Adjudication and Review's Appeals Council ("Appeals Council"), AR (Document No. 7-2) at 16, and submitted medical records and reports as additional evidence to be considered by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council received the additional evidence, but, on September 9, 2011, denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR (Document No. 7-2) at 2. The Appeals Council determined that "[the reasons Plaintiff disagreed with the ALJ's decision] [do] not provide a basis for changing the [ALJ's] decision[, ]" and "found no reason under [the Appeals Council's] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision." Id. at 2-3. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Plaintiff then timely commenced this action for review of the decision.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision should be reversed, and that she should be awarded social security insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Alternatively, Plaintiff submits that the matter should be remanded for a new hearing. Plaintiff's Memorandum at 1. Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination on the following basis: (1) the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule; (2) the Appeals Council failed to properly consider new evidence; (3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the Plaintiff's credibility; and (4) the ALJ relied upon flawed vocational expert testimony. Id. at 12-22. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in determining that "despite the severe impairments of gout, obesity, degenerative joint disease of the left ankle, degenerative disc disease, hepatitis C, and diabetes, [Plaintiff] retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work except that she requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing and she can perform only unskilled work involving limited use of the dominant hand and limited contact with the general public." Id. at 12. Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff "could perform other work as a census clerk, charge account clerk, and unarmed security worker" after he "conceded [Plaintiff] was unable to perform any of her past work[.]" Plaintiff's Memorandum at 12.

Defendant, in support of her motion and in opposition to Plaintiff's motion, maintains that the agency's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance and in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Defendant's Memorandum and Opposition") (Document Nos. 11, 12) at 1. Defendant contends that the "(1) ALJ correctly analyzed all medical opinion evidence in the record, giving more weight to opinions supported by the records and explaining all of his findings; (2) the Appeals Council correctly found that evidence submitted after the date of the ALJ's decision presented no reason to revisit the ALJ's findings; (3) the ALJ appropriately analyzed [Plaintiff's] credibility in accordance with the appropriate authorities; and included in his findings a detailed discussion of record evidence; and (4) the ALJ incorporated into his decision vocational expert testimony based on limitations supported by record evidence." Id. at 1. In support of these contentions, Defendant argues that the "(1) ALJ properly analyzed all opinion evidence in the record" in that Plaintiff s "treating physician offered an opinion inconsistent both with his own treatment notes and with other evidence in the record"; (2) the "ALJ correctly analyzed Dr. Taubin's and Dr. McMorris' opinions, both of which accord with and are supported by other evidence in the record"; (3) the "Appeals Council correctly refused to review the ALJ's decision in light of later evidence that was not reasonably likely to change the ALJ's conclusions"; (4) the "ALJ properly evaluated [Plaintiff's] credibility and provided a detailed supporting discussion of the evidence in the record"; and (5) the "ALJ relied upon vocational expert testimony regarding all limitations supported by the record and only those limitations supported by the record." Defendant's Memorandum and Opposition at 11-27.

Plaintiff, in her opposition to Defendant's motion and reply to Defendant's opposition, "adopts and incorporates herein her arguments raised in her Motion for Judgment of Reversal." Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance, and Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Plaintiff's Opposition and Reply") (Document Nos. 13, 14) at 1.

STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

The Social Security Act established a framework to provide "disability insurance benefits" to eligible individuals and "to provide supplemental security income to individuals who have attained age 65 or are blind or disabled." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381, 1381a. The statute defines disability for non-blind individuals as "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]" § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. A disabled individual is eligible for supplemental security income if he or she meets additional statutory requirements concerning "income" and "resources." 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations, pursuant to the statue, outlining a five-step process for evaluating disability of adults. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

First, the agency evaluates whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity"; if so, the agency concludes that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), (b); 416.920(a)(4)(I), (b). If not, the agency determines whether the claimant has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement... or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement...." §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The impairment or combination of impairments is severe if it "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If deemed severe, the agency then determines whether the impairment "meets or equals one of [the] listings"; if so, and it meets the duration requirement, the agency concludes that the claimant is disabled. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). The "listings" refers to a "listing of ...


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