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Chambers v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 12, 2018




         After considering a record crisscrossed with seventeen different medical, psychological, and vocational providers, the Social Security Administration deemed Mary Chambers ineligible for disability benefits or supplemental income because she did not meet the agency's definition of a disabled individual. She now appeals, arguing that Administrative Law Judge F. H. Ayer ("the ALJ") improperly weighed the evidence and that he failed to consider Chambers's work history in evaluating her credibility. But the ALJ hewed closely to agency policy and reached a conclusion supported by substantial evidence. Because it is not the role of the courts to second-guess the ALJ's judgment, the Court affirms.

         I. Factual Background

         For almost three decades, Chambers served the Washington, D.C. government as a full-time support specialist. By all accounts, she was an exemplary employee, consistently earning a $40, 000 to $65, 000 salary.

         Chambers now seeks benefits and supplemental income for a disability she claims began in November 2014, shortly after she suffered a transient ischemic attack (popularly referred to as a ministroke) and quit her job due to stress. Around the same time, her doctors also diagnosed her with sleep apnea, hypertension, cerebral small vessel disease, and coronary artery disease. By then a fifty-one-year-old smoker, she also suffers from arthritis, osteopenia (a bone loss condition), fatty liver disease, bladder wall thickening and infection, urethral narrowing, sciatica, tremors, chronic fatigue, cataracts, dry eyes, nearsightedness, age-related farsightedness, and eye inflammation tied to allergies.

         In her testimony before the ALJ, Chambers reported shortness of breath; a racing heart; tingling, pain, and mild weakness in her extremities; and difficulty ascending stairs and standing for long periods. She also described frequent headaches, which she treats by lying down with a vinegar-soaked rag. (She claimed that this relieves her symptoms, and that she does not want headache medication since she thinks she already takes too many pills.)

         Her doctors paint a more varied picture. In November 2014, after Chambers went to the emergency room with persistent headaches and facial numbness, an internist attributed Chambers's headaches to hypertension and found her able to walk, climb stairs, drive, and lift less than fifteen pounds. Two months later, however, a neurologist mistakenly diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis and advised her to cease work. A month after that, her family physician reported Chambers felt fine. Even still, when she saw a psychologist a few weeks after that, he described her as totally disabled and unable to work. But by the time she saw a second cardiologist a few months later, Chambers said she had no pain at all. And during the summer and fall of 2015, Chambers saw several more doctors, all of whom reported unremarkable examinations and noted her relative lack of self-reported impairment.

         In addition to her physical maladies, Chambers has a mental impairment-variously diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety-that mildly restricts her daily living activities and causes her moderate difficulties in social functioning, concentration, persistence, and pace. According to her testimony, this mental condition-not her physical impairments-led her to quit her job: she reported being threatened as a persistent whistleblower in a hostile environment, and she attributes her ministroke to the attendant stress. She also testified to feeling claustrophobic and suffering consistent panic attacks. Luckily, she has not experienced any decompensation episodes and is undergoing treatment.

         Despite these impairments, Chambers does her best to continue a normal routine. She continues to dress, bathe, and groom herself independently. She attends church, watches television, visits her grandchildren, launders and irons her clothes, cleans the bathroom, does the dishes, and walks on the treadmill to lose weight. She sleeps roughly seven hours each night and denies experiencing daytime fatigue!

         II. Prior Administrative Proceedings

         After considering the entire record, the ALJ found her cumulative impairment less severe than the impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1. Moreover, the ALJ found Chambers could perform light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), albeit with minor restrictions. And although those restrictions prevented her from resuming her previous job, the ALJ pointed to numerous other positions well-suited for Chambers's age, education, experience, and functional capacity. As a result, the ALJ concluded Chambers was not disabled under 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), or 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the agency's Appeals Counsel, Chambers filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         III. Standard of Review

         Section 405(g) limits our review to determining whether the ALJ correctly applied the relevant legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings. To facilitate this review, Social Security regulations require the ALJ to reconcile the claimant's testimony with the medical evidence and-if his final "assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source"-to ...

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