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Graves v. Colvin

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

April 6, 2015

BENITA GRAVES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

JOHN T. NIXON, Senior District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Benita Graves' Motion for Summary Judgment on the Record ("Motion") (Doc. No. 12), which she filed with a Memorandum in Support (Doc. No. 13) on May 13, 2013. On June 10, 2013, Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion. (Doc. No. 14.) On August 23, 2013, Magistrate Judge Knowles issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report") recommending that Plaintiff's Motion be denied and the decision of the Social Security Administration be affirmed. (Doc. No. 18 at 41.) On September 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed Objections to the Report (Doc. No. 23), to which the Commissioner filed a Response (Doc. No. 25), Plaintiff filed a Reply (Doc. No. 29), and the Commissioner filed a Sur-reply (Doc. No. 33). For the reasons stated below, the Magistrate Judge's Report is ADOPTED in PART. The Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion in part, DENIES the Motion in part, and REMANDS this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff protectively filed an Application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on April 21, 2008, alleging she has been disabled since August 2, 2007, due to osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, paresthesia, migraines, and anxiety. (Tr. 112, 133.)[2] The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's applications initially (Tr. 47) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 60). Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on October 3, 2008. (Tr. 66.) Plaintiff's hearing was conducted on April 13, 2010 by ALJ James Lessis. (Tr. 22.) Plaintiff and Vocational Expert ("VE") Calvin Turner appeared and testified. (Id. ) On March 18, 2011, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 16.)

Plaintiff filed a request for review of the hearing decision on March 18, 2011. (Tr. 110.) On September 27, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1.) Plaintiff filed this action on November 29, 2012, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). (Doc. No. 1.) On August 23, 2013, Magistrate Judge Knowles issued the Report, recommending that Plaintiff's Motion be denied and the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. (Doc. No. 18 at 2.) On September 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed an Objection to the Report's conclusion that the ALJ properly addressed the opinions of Drs. Jane Siegel, Bruce Butler, John Yuill, and M. Farooq Ali. (Doc. No. 23 at 4, 6-7.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court's review of the Report is de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (2012). This review, however, is limited to "a determination of whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the [Commissioner's] decision and to a review for any legal errors." Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). Title II of the Social Security Act provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accordingly, the reviewing court will uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). Substantial evidence is a term of art and is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance." Bell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Consol. Edison, 305 U.S. at 229).

"Where substantial evidence supports the [Commissioner's] determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion." Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990) (citing Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc)). This standard of review is consistent with the well-settled rule that the reviewing court in a disability hearing appeal is not to weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations because these factual determinations are left to the ALJ and to the Commissioner. Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993); Besaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992). Thus, even if the Court would have come to different factual conclusions as to the Plaintiff's claim on the merits than those of the ALJ, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed if they are supported by substantial evidence. Hogg, 987 F.2d at 331.

III. ALJ LESSIS' DECISION

To be eligible for DIB and SSI, a claimant has the ultimate burden to establish he or she is entitled 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 result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (2012); see Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993). The claimant's "physical or mental impairment" must "result[] from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). 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[3] 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 ("RFC") (e.g., what the claimant can still do despite his or her limitations); if the claimant has the RFC to do his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant is not able to do any past relevant work or does not have any past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. At the last step it must be determined whether the claimant is able to do any other work. At this step, the Commissioner must provide evidence of 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 RFC.

20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a) (2014); Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

Here ALJ Lessis made the following findings: (1) "The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 2, 2007, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. )"; (2) "The claimant has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, CMC joint osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, depression and anxiety (20 CFR 404.1520(c))"; (3) Graves does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals a listing-level ...


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