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Campbell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

March 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This civil matter is before the Court on plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. 14] and defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 16]. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the Commissioner's motion [Doc. 18]. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Administrative Law Judge's ("the ALJ") decision-which constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part plaintiffs motion, and will deny the Commissioner's motion.

         I. Procedural History

         On November 7, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"), claiming a period of disability beginning January 1, 2008 [Tr. 80, 340-52]. After his application was initially denied, plaintiff requested a hearing for reconsideration. [Tr. 218]. On May 11, 2010, the ALJ held a hearing to review the determination of plaintiff's claim [Tr. 46-75]. On May 28, 2010, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled [Tr. 149-65]. The Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review, and on July 7, 2011, the Council remanded the case for a new hearing [Tr. 166]. On March 19, 2012, the ALJ held a second hearing [Tr. 76-119]. The ALJ again issued an unfavorable decision on April 24, 2012 [Tr. 171- 93]. Plaintiff again requested a review and the Appeals Council again granted the request, remanding the case for further review [Tr. 194]. On May 16, 2014, a third hearing was held before a different ALJ [Tr. 120-44]. The new ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on June 16, 2014 [Tr. 20-45], and the Appeals Council declined review [Tr. 1-6]. Thus, the third ALJ decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court on December 11, 2015, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under § 405(g) of the Social Security Act [Doc. 1]. The parties have filed competing dispositive motions, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. The ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ made the following findings:

         1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012.

         2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).

         3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: scoliosis and small posterior osteophytes of the thoracic spine; kyphotic deformity at the level of C5-6 and midline disk bulge or disk protrusion with intervertebral neural foramina narrowing and spinal stenosis at the level of C5-6 and C6; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc herniations and mild central canal stenosis; degenerative joint disease; tendinosis of the right rotator cuff tendon; peripheral neuropathy; reversal of the cervical curve and disc bulges degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc protrusion; a respiratory disorder; Anxiety Disorder NOS, moderate; Affective Disorder NOS; Depressive Disorder NOS, mild to moderate; ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); and Bipolar Disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(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, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).

         5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that he is limited to occasional climbing or ramps and stairs; occasional balancing, stooping kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no more than occasional overhead reaching with the right arm; no concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants or hazards; and no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is able to perform and maintain concentration for simple, routine, repetitive tasks and perform work that requires no more than occasional interaction with the public.

         6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).

         7. The claimant was born on April 29, 1975 and was 32 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).

         8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).

         9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable 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, 44.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).

         11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2008, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g), and 416.920(g)) [Tr. 25-37].

         III. Standard of Review

         When reviewing the Commissioner's determination of whether an individual is disabled pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court is limited to determining “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence.” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). If the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and his findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record, his decision is conclusive and must be affirmed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981)) (internal citations omitted).

         It is immaterial whether the record may also possess substantial evidence to support a different conclusion from that reached by the ALJ, or whether the reviewing judge may have decided the case differently. Crisp v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 790 F.2d 450, 453 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The substantial evidence standard is intended to create a “‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted).

         In addition to reviewing the ALJ's findings to determine whether they were supported by substantial evidence, the Court also reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it was reached through application of the correct legal standards and in accordance with the procedure mandated by the regulations and rulings promulgated by the Commissioner. See Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

         On review, the plaintiff “bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec'y. of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing Halsey v. Richardson, 441 F.2d 1230 (6th Cir. 1971)).

         IV. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ committed three errors in determining plaintiff's claim. First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate a “Physical Capacities Evaluation” (“physical assessment”) from plaintiff's treating medical providers, Dr. Neil Barry and Ms. Jami England, ARNP [Doc. 8 pp. 6-10]. Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assessing Dr. Robert Blaine's 2009 and 2011 opinions [Id. at 10-16]. Lastly, plaintiff contends that the ALJ unfairly focused on the lack of additional medical treatment plaintiff ...

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