Poindexter v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by District Judge Glen E. Conrad on 1/19/17. (sas)
CLERK'S OFFICE U.S. DIST. COURT
AT ROANOKE, VA
JAN 1 9 2017
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
SYLVIA F. POINDEXTER,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 7:16CV00122
Honorable Glen E. Conrad
Chief United States District Judge
Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying plaintiffs claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under
the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is
pursuant to §205(g) ofthe Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This court's review is limited to a
determination as to whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's
conclusion that plaintiff failed to meet the requirements for entitlement to benefits under the Act.
If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated briefly, substantial evidence has been
defined as such relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as might be found adequate
to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
The plaintiff, Sylvia F. Poindexter, was born on January 2, 1966, and eventually
completed her high school education. Ms. Poindexter has worked as a sewing machine operator
and as a specialist in window and door assembly. She last worked on a regular basis in 2012. On
July 24, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits. Ms. Poindexter alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful
employment on March 16, 2012, due to a torn left Achilles tendon, high blood pressure, and
arthritis. Plaintiff now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. The record
reveals that Ms. Poindexter met the insured status requirements of the Act at all relevant times
covered by the final decision of the Commissioner. See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a).
Ms. Poindexter's application was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration.
She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law
Judge. In an opinion dated October 28, 2014, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff is not
disabled. The Law Judge found that Ms. Poindexter suffers from severe impairments caused by
residuals ofleft Achilles tendon tear with calcaneal spur and Haglund's deformity, and associated
pain, requiring two surgical procedures of the left Achilles tendon, as well as high blood pressure.
(TR 26). Because of these impairments, the Law Judge ruled that Ms. Poindexter is disabled for
her past relevant work role as a window factory specialist. (TR 37). However, the Law Judge
determined that plaintiff retains sufficient functional capacity for sedentary work activity. (TR
28). The Law Judge assessed Ms. Poindexter's residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the
residual functional capacity to perform unskilled sedentary work. The claimant can
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and lift and carry 10 pounds frequently. She
can stand/walk 4 hours and sit about 6 hours with no real ability to push/pull with
the left lower extremity and with the right upper extremity. She can occasionally
climb ramps and stairs, never ladders, and balance frequently. She can
occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, and kneel. She would have no significant
manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations and can, at best, perform
(TR 28). Given such a residual functional capacity, and after considering plaintiffs age,
education, and prior work experience, as well as testimony from a vocational expert, the Law
Judge held that Ms. Poindexter retains sufficient functional capacity to perform several specific
sedentary work roles existing in significant number in the national economy. (TR 38).
Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that Ms. Poindexter is not disabled, and that she
is not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. (TR 39). See generally 20
C.P.R.§ 404.1520(g). Ms. Poindexter sought review of the adverse decision by the Social
Security Administration's Appeals Council. (TR 20). In connection with her request for review,
plaintiff submitted additional medical evidence. (TR 6). However, the Appeals Council
ultimately adopted the Law Judge's opinion as the final decision of the Commissioner. (TR 1-4).
Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Ms. Poindexter has now appealed to this
While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual
determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment.
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four elements ofproofwhich must be considered in making
such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and
clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions oftreating physicians; (3) subjective evidence
of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4)
the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d
1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff, 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
After a review of the record in this case, the court is constrained to conclude that the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. The medical record confirms
that plaintiffs most serious problem consists of impairments of the left lower extremity. While
she also suffers from hypertension, the medical evidence suggests that this condition has proven
subject to reasonable pharmaceutical control. Although Mrs. Poindexter also experiences obesity
and emotional problems, including panic attacks, the court believes that the Administrative Law
Judge properly determined that these additional problems are not severe in terms of functional
impact. Nevertheless, Ms. Poindexter's left lower extremity problems are significant and greatly
limit her capacity for exertional activity. It seems that plaintiff tore her left Achilles tendon in a
work-related fall in March of2012. She eventually underwent a left Achilles tendon repair with
calcaneal ostectomy, which was performed on August 23, 2012. The first surgical reports indicate
that Ms. Poindexter made a good recovery. However, she continued to experience pain in her left
ankle, and sought a second opinion from Dr. James Chandler on May 20, 2013. Dr. Chandler
noted a significantly antalgic gait. He prescribed conservative treatment for the Achilles
complaints. When Ms. Poindexter continued to note pain, Dr. Chandler performed a second
Achilles tendon repair on August 26, 2013. Following the second procedure, Ms. Poindexter still
complained of pain in the left lower extremity, with swelling. Her doctors attribute her continuing
pain to her antalgic gait. Dr. Chandler has recommended that Ms. Poindexter avoid prolonged
standing, and that she elevate her left lower extremity and apply ice several times per day in order
to control her swelling.
Without question, Ms. Poindexter's left lower extremity problems render her disabled for
her past relevant work as a window specialist. However, the court believes that the
Administrative Law Judge reasonably determined that plaintiffs physical problems are not so
severe as to prevent performance of sedentary levels of work which do not involve use of the left
lower extremity. As to plaintiffs need to elevate her left lower extremity and apply ice, the
Administrative Law Judge pointed out that her treating physicians have not suggested that Ms.
Poindexter is disabled for all forms of work. (TR 36). The Law Judge specifically relied on Dr.
Chandler's report in finding that plaintiff can reasonably accommodate her need to elevate her left
leg and apply ice while at the same time maintaining a regular job. (TR 37). When presented
with a hypothetical question setting forth residual functional capacity for a limited range of
sedentary exertion, the vocational expert identified several specific work roles in which Ms.
Poindexter could be expected to perform. The court finds that the vocational expert's
consideration of the record, and the hypothetical questions under which the expert deliberated, are
both reasonable and consistent with the evidence in plaintiffs case. The court concludes that the
Law Judge reasonably relied on the vocational expert's testimony in concluding that plaintiff
retains sufficient functional capacity for alternate work activities. It follows that the Law Judge's
opinion is supported by substantial evidence. Thus, the court concludes the Commissioner's final
decision must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze, supra.
On appeal to this court, Ms. Poindexter, through counsel, makes several argument in
support of her contention that the Commissioner's final decision is not supported by substantial
evidence. Plaintiff maintains that the Law Judge failed to give proper weight to reports from Dr.
Chandler, who performed the second surgery, regarding plaintiffs need to elevate her left lower
extremity and apply ice. It is true that Dr. Chandler believes that plaintiff experiences continuing
problems with her left lower extremity, as reflected in several, cryptic statements. In a letter
submitted to plaintiffs attorney on March 28, 2014, Dr. Chandler submitted the following
Sylvia Poindexter has an [A]chilies problem that is expected to prevent her from
gainful employment for over a year with anything involving standing or walking.
(TR 508). On August 26, 2014, Dr. Chandler commented as follows:
Sylvia Poindexter has impairment of 13% lower extremity, 5% whole person. She
continues to have pain and swelling, need for elevation and ice several times a day.
(TR 511). On December 17, 2014, in one of the medical exhibits submitted to the Appeals
Council, Dr. Chandler offered an additional comment:
Sylvia Poindexter is unable to do any work requiring standing, walking, lifting,·and
carrying. She must have her left leg elevated.
As noted above, the Administrative Law Judge did not consider the input from Dr.
Chandler to be supportive of a finding of total disability. The court believes this conclusion is
consistent with a fair reading of Dr. Chandler's abbreviated assessments. At most, Dr. Chandler's
evaluation of plaintiffs residual functional capacity suggests a partial disability, with total
inability to do "any work requiring standing, walking, lifting, and carrying." The court believes
that such an assessment is consistent with the Law Judge's finding of residual functional capacity
for a limited range of sedentary exertion. In short, the court agrees that no treating physician has
suggested that plaintiff is totally disabled for all forms of work activity.
In appealing to this court, Ms. Poindexter also argues that the Law Judge's findings as to
residual functional capacity are not supported by substantial evidence, and that the Law Judge
failed to give proper weight to plaintiffs testimony at the administrative hearing. However, the
court must conclude that the Law Judge's assessment of plaintiffs residual functional capacity is
consistent with the findings of the treating physicians, as well as with the report of a physical
therapist who saw plaintiff following the second surgical procedure. (TR 466). As for plaintiffs
testimony, while it is true that Ms. Poindexter indicated that she must elevate her left leg with
such frequency as to prevent regular work activity, the court again notes that such testimony is not
consistent with input from the treating physician. As implied by the Law Judge, if Dr. Chandler
had felt that Ms. Poindexter was un~ble to do any work, it would have been a simple matter to say
so, rather than to observe that she is unable to do work requiring standing, walking, lifting, and
carrying. The court concludes that the Law Judge's treatment of these issues is fully consistent
with the evidence of record.
Finally, citing Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700 (4th Cir. 2011), Ms. Poindexter urges that
the evidence submitted to the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council was not properly
considered, and that her case should be remanded for additional review. The court is unable to
agree. As noted above, the court does not believe that Dr. Chandler's letter of December 17, 2014
(TR 18) is supportive of Ms. Poindexter's claim of total disability. In other reports submitted for
the first time to the Appeals Council, Dr. RobertS. Strong opined that plaintiffs complaints of
musculoskeletal pain cannot be attributed to rheumatoid arthritis.' (TR 571).
In short, the court
does not believe that further consideration of the evidence submitted to the Appeals Council
would result in any different disposition in Ms. Poindexter's case. Cf. Borders v. Heckler, 777
F.2d 954, 955 (4th 1985). Thus, the court finds no cause for remand of Ms. Poindexter's case to
the Commissioner for further development and consideration. In such circumstances, if plaintiff
believes that her medical condition has deteriorated, the appropriate course is for Ms. Poindexter
to file a new application for benefits, alleging disability onset at some point in time after the date
of the Administrative Law Judge's decision in the instant case.
1 Indeed, the court believes that the series of reports from Dr. Strong, a more recent treating physician,
do not support the notiop. that Mrs. Poindexter experienced disabling pain in the left lower extremity during
Dr. Strong's period of treatment in 2014.
In summary, the court has found substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's
decision denying plaintiffs entitlement to benefits. Accordingly, the final decision of the
Commissioner must be affirmed. Laws v. Celebrezze, supra. In affirming the final decision of
the Commissioner, the court does not suggest that Ms. Poindexter is free of all pain, swelling, and
discomfort, especially in her left lower extremity. Indeed, the medical record confirms that
plaintiff suffers from definite residual problems following two Achilles tendon surgeries.
However, the medical reports from plaintiffs second surgeon simply do not indicate that Ms.
Poindexter is disabled for sedentary levels of work not involving the use of the left lower
extremity. It is well settled that the inability to do work without any discomfort does not of itself
render a claimant totally disabled. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 594-95 (4th Cir. 1996). Once
again, it appears to the court that the Administrative Law Judge fairly considered all the subjective
factors reasonably supported by the medical record in adjudicating plaintiffs claim for benefits. It
follows that all facets ofthe Commissioner's final decision are supported by substantial evidence.
As a general rule, resolution of conflicts in the evidence is a matter within the province of
the Commissioner even if the court might resolve the conflicts differently. Richardson v. Perales,
supra; Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396 (4th Cir. 1974). For the reasons stated, the court finds
the Commissioner's resolution of the pertinent conflicts in the record in this case to be supported
by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the final decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.
Laws v. Celebrezze, supra. An appropriate judgment and order will be entered this day.
The clerk is directed to send certified copies of this opinion to all counsel of record.
t t\ t4 day of January, 2017.
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