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Robbins v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

February 28, 2017




         Plaintiff Barbara Eliane Robbins (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Each party has moved for judgment on the administrative record and summary judgment [Docs. 17 & 19] and has filed a memorandum in support of their respective motions [Docs. 18 & 20]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record [Doc. 17] will be DENIED; the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 19] will be GRANTED; and the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed her current applications for DIB and SSI on August 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 12, 2012[1] (Transcript [Doc. 12] (“Tr.”) 156-166). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing (Tr. 105-111, 112, 116-120, 121-124). The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on July 31, 2014, during which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney (Tr. 26-50). The ALJ issued a decision on September 23, 2014, finding that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act (“Act”) and finding Plaintiff has retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with additional restrictions (Tr. 9-21). Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request, and the ALJ's decision became the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff timely filed the instant action [Doc. 1].


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1965 and originally alleged disability beginning at age 46 due to neck and back problems and migraines (Tr. 19, 53, 56, 60, 62, 65, 68, 73, 79-80, 89, 199, 345-46, 372-73, 388, 448-49). Additional alleged impairments include fibromyalgia, anxiety, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension (Tr. 11-13, 79, 95-96, 345, 347, 531-537). Plaintiff was 48 years old on the date of her administrative hearing (Tr. 29). She can communicate in English, obtained her GED in 1993 (Tr. 19, 30, 198-200), and has past work as a delivery person in connection with medical deliveries, as a general laborer in a production facility, as a merchandise supervisor and merchandiser in retail stores, as a fast food restaurant worker, and for a short stint as a customer service representative (Tr. 69, 87, 200, 224, 400).

         B. Medical Records

         The administrative record contains extensive medical records which have been summarized by the parties and the ALJ that need not be summarized again herein. Only the portions of Plaintiff's medical records relevant to the parties' arguments will be addressed within the respective sections of the analysis below, but all relevant records have been reviewed.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the July 31, 2014 hearing, Plaintiff testified (Tr. 28-45). In addition, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified (Tr. 45-49). While the Court has carefully reviewed the transcript of the testimony at the hearing, it is not necessary to summarize all of the testimony herein. As needed, portions of the testimony will be addressed within the respective sections of the analysis below.


         A. Eligibility

         “The Social Security Act defines a disability as the ‘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.'” Schmiedebusch v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 536 F. App'x 637, 646 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)); see also Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 F. App'x 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant is disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Parks, 413 F. App'x at 862 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) determines eligibility for disability benefits by following a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The five-step process provides:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities-the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled.

Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the burden to show the extent of his impairments, but at step five, the Commissioner bears the burden to show that, notwithstanding those impairments, there are jobs the claimant is capable of performing. See Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 512-13 (6th Cir. 2010).

         B. The ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step process, the ALJ made the following findings (Tr. 9-21). At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date, August 12, 2012 (Tr. 11). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine (post fusion surgery) and cervical spine, left lumbar radiculitis, cervicogenic headaches, and anxiety disorder (Tr. 11). The ALJ further found Plaintiff's alleged impairments of hypertension and diabetes mellitus were not severe as they both could be controlled with nutrition and medication, records showed no evidence of any end organ damage from either alleged impairment, and they caused no more than minimal limitations on Plaintiff's “ability to perform basic work activity” (Tr. 11-12). The ALJ determined that fibromyalgia was not a medically determinable impairment since the evidence was not sufficient to support the requirements under Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 12-2p, particularly as to the number and location of trigger points upon physical examination and evidence that other disorders were not causing Plaintiff's fibromyalgia symptoms (Tr. 12).

         At step three, the ALJ states Plaintiff's representative did not specifically make the assertion that Plaintiff meets or equals any listing-level impairment and the ALJ found no evidence that Plaintiff has any impairment or combination of impairments to meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (Tr. 12). The ALJ next determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant requires a sit/stand option at about 30-minute to 1-hour intervals; however, no assistive device is required for ambulation. The claimant can do no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally perform postural activities including balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She can use her hands frequently for handling, fingering, and feeling. She should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving machinery, etc. The claimant is further limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, and she must have only occasional contact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

         (Tr. 13-14). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff has no past relevant work (Tr. 19). At step five, taking into consideration the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, and after utilizing the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2 (“Grids”), as a framework for his decision and considering the testimony of a VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy such as table worker, hand mounter, and inspector/checker (Tr. 19-20). These findings led to the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from August 12, 2012 through the date of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 20-21).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred (1) by failing to provide good reasons for rejecting the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Scott D. Hodges; (2) by failing to find that Plaintiff's impairments meet or medically equal one of the listings, more specifically Listing 1.04A; (3) by making a credibility determination that is not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) by finding that Plaintiff can perform a range of sedentary work which Plaintiff argues is not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm unless the Commissioner's decision rests on an incorrect legal standard or is not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” McClanahan, 474 F.3d at 833 (internal citations omitted). Furthermore, the evidence must be “substantial” in light of the record as a whole, “tak[ing] into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (internal citations omitted). If there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings, they should be affirmed, even if the court might have decided facts differently, or if substantial evidence would also have supported other findings. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 782 (6th Cir. 1996); Ross v. Richardson, 440 F.2d 690, 691 (6th Cir. 1971). The court may not re-weigh evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Garner, 745 F.2d at 387. The substantial evidence standard allows considerable latitude to administrative decision makers because it presupposes “there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” McClanahan, 474 F.3d at 833 (quoting Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001)).

         The court may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). The court, however, may not consider any evidence that was not before the ALJ for purposes of substantial evidence review. Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). Furthermore, the court is under no obligation to scour the record for errors not identified by the claimant, Howington v. Astrue, No. 2:08-CV-189, 2009 WL 2579620, at *6 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 18, 2009) (stating that assignments of error not made by claimant were waived), and arguments not raised and supported in more than a perfunctory manner may be deemed waived, Woods v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:08-CV-651, 2009 WL 3153153, at ...

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