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Callaway v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Rhonda Callaway challenges the denial of her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. On April 29, 2016, Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey, to whom this matter had been referred for full case management, issued his Report and Recommendation. Judge Harvey recommended that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) be affirmed. Thereafter, Callaway 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 Callaway'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 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. 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). 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).

         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). 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). Second, she must show that she has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Third, she must show that her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the relevant regulation, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is deemed disabled; if not, the ALJ must 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). 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); see Butler, 353 F.3d at 997.

         B. Factual Background

         Callaway applied for disability benefits on February 16, 2011, alleging that her disability began on December 11, 2010 due to rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome, and hypothyroidism. See Administrative Record (“AR”) [ECF Nos. 9-1 to 9-8] at 254-55, 266, 270. Callaway's claims were denied initially on June 2, 2011, and again upon reconsideration on November 18, 2011. AR 161, 172. Callaway filed a timely request for a hearing on December 1, 2011, AR 175, and the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) held three hearings before an ALJ on March 8, 2012, September 26, 2012, and February 28, 2013, AR 40, 61, 140. On May 21, 2013, the ALJ denied Callaway's claim, finding she was not “disabled” under the Act. AR 35.

         In performing the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found (at steps one and two) that Callaway had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date and that she had the following severe impairments: “rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome, disorders of the back, osteoarthritis of knees, headaches, obesity, fibromyalgia, and affective mood disorder.” AR 24. At step three, the ALJ determined that Callaway did not have an impairment that met or equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 25- 27. And at step four, the ALJ found that Callaway was incapable of performing her past relevant work as a retail sales clerk, sales manager, or silent auction clerk. AR 33. Finally, after considering the entire record, the ALJ found that Callaway had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work: she could occasionally lift or carry ten pounds; frequently lift or carry less than ten pounds; sit for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand or walk about two hours in an eight-hour workday if allowed the option to change between sitting and standing for two minutes, once every half hour, at the workstation; frequently but not constantly engage in fine/gross manipulation; occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, and kneel; and understand, remember, and carry out detailed but not complex tasks. AR 27. Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Callaway was capable of performing work in the national economy-for instance, as a personnel clerk, maintenance clerk, or freight shipment clerk-and hence that she was not disabled. AR 34-35. Callaway sought review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on August 29, 2014, making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision. AR 6.[1]

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Callaway filed this lawsuit seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[2] This Court referred the case to a magistrate judge for full case management. See March 4, 2015 Referral Order [ECF No. 3]. Thereafter, Callaway filed a motion for judgment of reversal and the Commissioner moved for judgment of affirmance. Callaway alleged that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly weigh the medical evidence and thereby failing to properly determine Callaway's RFC; (2) failing to properly evaluate Callaway's credibility; and (3) relying on flawed vocational expert (“VE”) testimony. See Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal at 16-26. The Commissioner responded that “the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.” Def.'s Mot. for J. of Affirmance [ECF No. 13] at 21.

         In his April 29, 2016 Report and Recommendation, Judge Harvey recommended that the Court deny Callaway's motion and grant the Commissioner's motion. See Report & Recommendation (“R&R”) [ECF No. 17] at 1, 37. Specifically, he found that the ALJ's RFC determination, credibility determination, and reliance on VE testimony were all supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 23-37. Callaway filed timely objections to the Report and Recommendation on May 12, 2016, pursuant to Local Rule 72.3(b). See Pl.'s Objections to R&R [ECF No. 18]. The Commissioner responded, asking this Court to adopt the Report and Recommendation in full. See Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Objections [ECF No. 19] at 3.


         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; see 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); see Butler, 353 ...

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