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Troy v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 21, 2017

SHEILA M. TROY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN D.BATES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sheila Troy challenges the denial of her claim for Social Security Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits. On August 25, 2016, Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, to whom this matter had been referred for full case management, issued her Report and Recommendation. Judge Robinson recommended that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") be affirmed. Thereafter, Troy filed timely Objections to the Report and Recommendation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.3(b), and defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, filed a response. For the reasons set forth in the Report and Recommendation and those explained further below, the Court finds that the ALJ properly denied Troy's claim. The Court accordingly adopts the Report and Recommendation, denies plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal, and grants defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), a claimant must establish that she is "disabled." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1382. Under the Act, disability means the "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." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also id § l382c(a)(3)(A). With certain exceptions not present here, an individual is disabled "only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The ALJ must employ a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). The claimant must first show that she is not presently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, she must show that she has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, she must show that her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is deemed disabled; if not, the ALJ will assess the claimant's residual function capacity ("RFC"), which reflects "what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations." Ross v. Astrue, 636 F.Supp.2d 127, 132 (D.D.C. 2009). Fourth, the claimant must show that she is incapable of performing her "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. 1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant has satisfied the first four steps, the Commissioner bears the burden at step five of demonstrating that the claimant is still able to perform "other work" based on a consideration of her RFC, age, education and work experience. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 446.920(a)(4)(v); Butler, 353 F.3d at 997.

         B. Factual Background

         Troy applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on September 26, 2011 and September 13, 2011, respectively, alleging that her disability began on March 18, 2010 due to a brain tumor, diabetes, and carpal tunnel syndrome. See Administrative Record ("A.R.") [ECF Nos. 9-1 through 9-13] at 38, 239, 242. Troy's claims were denied initially on January 25, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on July 27, 2012. Id. at 38. Thereafter, Troy filed a timely request for a hearing on September 7, 2012, and one was held before an ALJ on November 15, 2013. Id. In a decision issued December 20, 2013, the ALJ denied Troy's claim, finding she was not "disabled" under the Act. Id. at 45.

         In performing the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found (at steps one and two) that Troy had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date and that she had the following severe impairments: "pituitary adenoma, status post endoscopic resection with septoplasty and inferior turbinectomy in March 2010; rhinosinusitis; GERD with muscle tension dysphoria; diabetes mellitus; asthma; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, left worse than right; peripheral vascular disease with diabetic polyneuropathy; thoracic/lumbosacral neuritis/radiculitis; and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine." Id. at 40. At step three, the ALJ determined that Troy did not have an impairment that met or equaled an impairment listed in Appendix 1. Id. at 41. And at step four, the ALJ found that Troy was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a data entry operator. Id. at 45. Finally, after considering the entire record, the ALJ found that Troy had the RFC to perform sedentary work in that she can occasionally lift and/or carry ten pounds, frequently lift and/or carry less than ten pounds, stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight hour day, sit for a total of about six hours in an eight hour day, and frequently reach, handle, finger, and feel. Id. at 41. Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Troy was capable of performing past relevant work as a computer security specialist, and hence she was not disabled. Id. at 45. Troy sought review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Troy filed this lawsuit seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court referred the case to a magistrate judge for full case management. See June 16, 2015 Referral Order [ECF No. 3]. Thereafter, Troy filed a motion for judgment of reversal and the Commissioner moved for judgment of affirmance. Troy alleged that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide specific reasons for finding Troy's allegations concerning her impairments were only partially credible; (2) failing to properly weigh the relevant opinion evidence in making the RFC determination; and (3) making the Step 4 determination based on testimony from a vocational expert in response to an incomplete hypothetical. See Pl's Mot. for J. of Reversal [ECF No. 13] at 9-18. Defendant responded that "[b]ecause substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions, Plaintiffs challenges should be dismissed, and the ALJ's decision should be affirmed." See Def's Mot. for J. of Affirmance [ECF No. 14] at 2.

         In her August 25, 2016 Report and Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Robinson recommended that the Court deny Troy's motion and grant defendant's motion. See Report & Recommendation ("R&R") [ECF No. 18] at 1, 13-14. Specifically, she found that the ALJ's credibility determination, RFC determination, and Step 4 determination were all supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 6-13. Plaintiff filed timely but brief Objections to the Report and Recommendation on September 7, 2016, pursuant to Local Rule 72.3(b). See Pl's Objections to R&R [ECF No. 19]. Defendant responded, asking this Court to adopt the Report and Recommendation in full. See Def's Resp. to Pl's Objections [ECF No. 20] at 2.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A claimant may seek judicial review in a district court of "any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which [s]he was a party." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). The court must uphold any decision that "is based on substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies the relevant legal standards." Butler, 353 F.3d at 999; Smith v. Bowen 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C.Cir. 1987). "Substantial evidence is 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It "requires more than a scintilla, but . . . less than a preponderance of the evidence." Id. (citation omitted).

         The D.C. Circuit has recognized that "[s]ubstantial-evidence review is highly deferential to the agency fact-finder." Rossello ex rel. Rossello v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 1181, 1185 (D.C. Cir. 2008). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that the ALJ's decision was not based on substantial evidence or contained an error of law. Lane-Rauth v. Barnhart,437 F.Supp.2d 63, 64 (D.D.C. 2006). The reviewing court must determine whether the ALJ "has analyzed all of the evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits." Id. at 65 (quoting Butler, 353 F.3d at 999). The court, however, "is not permitted to re-weigh the evidence and reach its own determination." Maynor v. Heckler, 597 F.Supp. 457, 460 (D.D.C. 1984); Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 ("[W]e are ...


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