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Varela v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 20, 2015

PHILLIP VARELA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

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 Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), as provided under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). 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. 16.

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.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff completed his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on July 28, 2010, alleging that he had been disabled since February 20, 2009, [1] due to muscle spasms, chronic back pain, hip pain, depression, sleep apnea, anxiety, and dizziness. See, e.g., Docket No. 10, Attachment ("TR"), pp. 108-109, 135-142, 162-167. Plaintiff's application was denied both initially (TR 60-63) and upon reconsideration (TR 65-67). Plaintiff subsequently requested (TR 68-69) and received (TR 80-97) a hearing. Plaintiff's hearing was conducted on August 30, 2012, by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Scott Shimer. TR 30-54. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert ("VE"), Pedro Roman, appeared and testified. Id. Plaintiff's attorney, Robert Parker, also appeared. Id.

On September 19, 2012, 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 9-29. Specifically, the ALJ made the following findings of fact:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2010, the amended alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity; degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis of the hips; major depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. 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 Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. 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 404.1567(b) except that he can stand and/or walk four hours in an eight-hour workday; only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; have no exposure to unprotected heights or unguarded, moving machinery; understand, remember, and carry out short, routine, repetitive tasks but not complex work; and workplace changes should be gradual and infrequent.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on January 3, 1979 and was 30 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. 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 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 20, 2009, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

TR 14-25.

On November 8, 2012, Plaintiff timely filed a request for review of the hearing decision. TR 6-8. On December 18, 2013, the Appeals Council issued a letter declining to review the case (TR 1-5), 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[2] 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 CFR §§ 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 vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs, which is typically obtained through vocational expert testimony. See Varley v. Secretary, 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir. 1987).

In determining residual functional capacity for purposes of the analysis required at stages four and five above, the Commissioner is required to consider the combined effect of all the claimant's impairments; mental and physical, exertional and nonexertional, severe and nonsevere. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B).

C. Plaintiff's Statement Of Errors

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider: (1) the opinion of Dr. James Head, Plaintiff's treating physician; (2) the opinion of Dr. Dorothy Lambert, Plaintiff's consultative psychological examiner; and (3) Plaintiff's "obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, and use of a cane" Docket No. 12-1. Accordingly, Plaintiff maintains that, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Commissioner's decision should be reversed, or in the alternative, remanded. Id.

Sentence four of § 405(g) states as follows:

The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.

42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

"In cases where there is an adequate record, the Secretary's decision denying benefits can be reversed and benefits awarded if the decision is clearly erroneous, proof of disability is overwhelming, or proof of disability is strong and evidence to the contrary is lacking." Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 973 (6th Cir. 1985). Furthermore, a court can reverse the decision and immediately award benefits if all essential factual issues have been resolved and the record adequately establishes a plaintiff's ...


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