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Baker v. Colvin

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

March 9, 2015

JAMIE MARIE BAKER, 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. 8. Defendant has filed a Response, arguing that the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. Docket No. 11.

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 filed her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on August 25, 2008, alleging that she had been disabled since January 2, 2008, due to "[s]pinal cord damage; eplipsy [ sic ]; interstitial cystitis in bladder; anxiety; [and] bulging discs in back." See, e.g., Docket No. 6, Attachment ("TR"), pp. 165, 201. Plaintiff's application was denied both initially (TR 75) and upon reconsideration (TR 77). Plaintiff subsequently requested (TR 89) and received (TR 99) a hearing. Plaintiff's hearing was conducted on October 21, 2010, by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") John Daughtry. TR 33. Plaintiff and vocational expert ("VE"), Gordon Doss, appeared and testified. Id.

On January 6, 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 7-27. Specifically, the ALJ made the following findings of fact:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2009.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 2, 2008 through her date last insured of September 30, 2009 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. ).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following combination of impairments that is severe: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with spondylosis; history of a seizure disorder (epilepsy); left carpal tunnel syndrome; mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; interstitial cystitis; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled 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, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) that is limited to occasional lifting and carrying of up to twenty pounds; frequent lifting and carrying of up to ten pounds; standing or walking for up to or about six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; sitting for up to or about six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; engaging in unlimited pushing and pulling; engaging in occasional postural activities of climbing stairs and ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; avoiding climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and avoiding concentrated exposure to vibrations and all exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery. Additionally, the claimant may have mental limitations, but is able to understand, remember, and carry out two-to-three step directions; can maintain concentration and persistence necessary to perform two-to-three step tasks; can have occasional contact with the general public; can relate to coworkers and interact with supervisors; and can adapt to infrequent changes in the workplace.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as an office clerk. This work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 2, 2008, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2009, the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(f)).

TR 12-27.

On February 21, 2011, Plaintiff timely filed a request for review of the hearing decision. TR 131. On March 13, 2012, 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[1] 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: (1) failed to consider all of Plaintiff's severe impairments; (2) erroneously concluded that the job of office clerk was past relevant work; (3) improperly evaluated and assessed Plaintiff's credibility; and (4) rendered a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding that is not consistent with the medical evidence. Docket No. 8-1 at 1-2. 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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