United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. CLIFTON KNOWLES, Magistrate Judge.
This is a civil action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Supplemental Security Insurance ("SSI"), as provided under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), as amended. The case is currently pending on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record. Docket No. 12. Defendant has filed a Response, arguing that the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. Docket No. 13. Plaintiff has filed a Reply. Docket No. 14-1.
For the reasons stated below, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record be DENIED, and that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on October 6, 2009, with a protective filing date oalleging that she had been disabled since September 30, 2008, due to depression, hepatitis C, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, acid reflux, and high blood pressure. See, e.g., Docket No. 10, Attachment ("TR"), pp. 52, 53, 118, 139. Plaintiff's application was denied both initially (TR 52) and upon reconsideration (TR 53). Plaintiff subsequently requested (TR 66) and received (TR 86) a hearing. Plaintiff's hearing was conducted on September 29, 2011, by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Donald E. Garrison. TR 28-51. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert, Rebecca Williams, appeared and testified. Id.
On October 31, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to Plaintiff, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and Regulations. TR 11-23. Specifically, the ALJ made the following findings of fact:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 11, 2009, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq. ).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: Degenerative joint disease of the right knee, asthma, obesity, diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and bipolar disorder. (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she is limited to walking or standing 20 minutes at a time and limited to two hours each of standing or walking; sitting two hours at a time; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; only occasional kneeling, crouching, and crawling; frequent climbing stairs and ramps, balancing, and stooping; frequent operating a motor vehicle, humidity and wetness, exposure to dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants, extreme cold, and extreme heat; occasional contact with the public; and understanding, remembering, and carrying out short and simple instructions and making judgments on simple work-related decisions.
5. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on August 30, 1977 and was 32 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant is illiterate and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
8 Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since September 11, 2009, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)).
On December 26, 2011, Plaintiff timely filed a request for review of the hearing decision. TR 7. On January 10, 2013, the Appeals Council issued a letter declining to review the case (TR 1-3), thereby rendering the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. This civil action was thereafter timely filed, and the Court has jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, based upon the record as a whole, then these findings are conclusive. Id.
II. REVIEW OF THE RECORD
The parties and the ALJ have thoroughly summarized and discussed the medical and testimonial evidence of Record. Accordingly, the Court will discuss those matters only to the extent necessary to analyze the parties' arguments.
III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
A. Standard of Review
This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to the record made in the administrative hearing process. Jones v. Secretary, 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). The purpose of this review is to determine (1) whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether any legal errors were committed in the process of reaching that decision. Landsaw v. Secretary, 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986).
"Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Her v. Commissioner, 203 F.3d 388, 389 (6th Cir. 1999) ( citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). "Substantial evidence" has been further quantified as "more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance." Bell v. Commissioner, 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996) ( citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 216, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)).
The reviewing court does not substitute its findings of fact for those of the Commissioner if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and inferences. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). In fact, even if the evidence could also support a different conclusion, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge must stand if substantial evidence supports the conclusion reached. Her, 203 F.3d at 389 ( citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997). However, if the Commissioner did not consider the record as a whole, the Commissioner's conclusion is undermined. Hurst v. Secretary, 753 F.2d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 1985) ( citing Allen v. Califano, 613 F.2d 139, 145 (6th Cir. 1980) ( citing Futernick v. Richardson, 484 F.2d 647 (6th Cir. 1973))).
In reviewing the decisions of the Commissioner, courts look to four types of evidence: (1) objective medical findings regarding Plaintiff's condition; (2) diagnosis and opinions of medical experts; (3) subjective evidence of Plaintiff's condition; and (4) Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience. Miracle v. Celebrezze, 351 F.2d 361, 374 (6th Cir. 1965).
B. Proceedings At The Administrative Level
The claimant carries the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving his or her "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). "Substantial gainful activity" not only includes previous work performed by Plaintiff, but also, considering Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, any other relevant work that exists in the national economy in significant numbers regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which Plaintiff lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether Plaintiff would be hired if he or she applied. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
At the administrative level of review, the claimant's case is considered under a five-step sequential evaluation process as follows:
(1) If the claimant is working and the work constitutes substantial gainful activity, benefits are automatically denied.
(2) If the claimant is not found to have an impairment which significantly limits his or her ability to work (a "severe" impairment), then he or she is not disabled.
(3) If the claimant is not working and has a severe impairment, it must be determined whether he or she suffers from one of the "listed" impairments or its equivalent. If a listing is met or equaled, benefits are owing without further inquiry.
(4) If the claimant does not suffer from any listing-level impairments, it must be determined whether the claimant can return to the job he or she previously held in light of his or her residual functional capacity (e.g., what the claimant can still do despite his or her limitations). By showing a medical condition that prevents him or her from returning to such past relevant work, the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability.
(5) Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish the claimant's ability to work by proving the existence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy which the claimant could perform, given his or her age, experience, education, and residual functional capacity.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (footnote added). See also Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).
The Commissioner's burden at the fifth step of the evaluation process can be satisfied by relying on the medical-vocational guidelines, otherwise known as "the grid, " but only if the claimant is not significantly limited by a nonexertional impairment, and then only when the claimant's characteristics identically match the characteristics of the applicable grid rule. Otherwise, the grid cannot be used to direct a conclusion, but only as a guide to the disability determination. Id. In such cases where the grid does not direct a conclusion as to the claimant's disability, the Commissioner must rebut the claimant's prima facie case by coming forward with particularized proof of the claimant's individual ...