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Staples v. Berryhill

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

April 14, 2017

SHELIA STAPLES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Shelia Staples brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Insurance (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. SSI is available to individuals who qualify as “disabled” within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1382.

         On January 23, 2017, the magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (Doc. No. 25), recommending that the plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 20) be denied and that the decision of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) be affirmed. The plaintiff has filed timely Objections. (Doc. No. 32.) For the reasons discussed herein, the court will overrule the Objections, accept the R&R, and deny the plaintiff's motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff filed her application for SSI on June 10, 2010, with a protective filing date of April 18, 2010, claiming that she has been disabled since January 10, 1990. (See Administrative Record (AR) 142, [2] Doc. No. 12.) She later amended the onset date to April 18, 2010. (AR 154.) Her application alleges that she is disabled due to back injuries, seizure disorder, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. (AR 189.)

         The SSA denied the application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 66-67, 68.) The plaintiff requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was conducted on April 13, 2012. (AR 30-65.) The plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at the hearing.

         The ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to the plaintiff on May 21, 2012, finding that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and Regulations. (AR 10-24.) The ALJ made the following specific findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbago; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; insomnia; joint pain of the leg; hypertension; seizure disorder; headaches; reflux; cognitive disorder; major depressive disorder; bipolar; anxiety; adjustment disorder with anxiety; and depressed mood (20 CFR 416.920(c)). . . .
3. 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 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). . . .
4. 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 416.967(b) except the claimant must avoid exposure to hazards. The claimant is further able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and is able to adapt to gradual and infrequent changes in the workplace. . . .
5. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a gluer. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 416.965). . . .
Although the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, there are other jobs existing in the national economy that she is also able to perform. Therefore, the Administrative Law Judge makes the following alternative findings for step five of the sequential evaluation process.
The claimant was born on October 22, 1969 and was 40 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963). The claimant has limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964). Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 416.968).
In the alternative, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can also perform (20 CFR 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
6. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since April 18, 2010, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(f)).

(AR 15-24).

         The Appeals Council declined review of the case (AR 1), thus rendering the ALJ's decision the “final decision” of the Commissioner.

         The plaintiff filed her Complaint initiating this action on September 20, 2013. (Doc. No. 1.) The SSA filed a timely Answer (Doc. No. 11), denying liability, and a complete copy of the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 12). On May 20, 2014, the plaintiff filed her Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 20), which the SSA opposed (Doc. No. 22). On January 23, 2017, the magistrate judge issued his R&R (Doc. No. 25), recommending that the plaintiff's motion be denied and that the SSA's decision be affirmed.

         The plaintiff, after having been granted several extensions of the deadline, filed Objections to the R&R (Doc. No. 32); the SSA has filed a Response in opposition to the Objections (Doc. No. 33).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When a magistrate judge issues a report and recommendation regarding a dispositive pretrial matter, the district court must review de novo any portion of the report and recommendation to which a proper objection is made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(1)(C); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); United States v. Curtis, 237 F.3d 598, 603 (6th Cir. 2001); Massey v. City of Ferndale, 7 F.3d 506, 510 (6th Cir. 1993). Objections must be specific; a general objection to the R&R is not sufficient and may result in waiver of further review. Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373, 380 (6th Cir. 1995). In conducting its review of the objections, the district court “may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         In Social Security cases under Title XVI, like those under Title II, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and, as such, entitled to benefits. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c), 405(h). The court's review of an ALJ's decision is limited to a determination of whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence. Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009)). The substantial evidence standard is met if a “reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). “The substantial evidence standard . . . presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts.” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). “Therefore, if substantial evidence supports an ALJ's decision, the court defers to that finding, ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)).

         III. OBJECTIONS

         The plaintiff's specific objections to the R&R are as follows:

         1. The magistrate judge improperly employed a “post hoc rationale” (Doc. No. 32, at 1) in concluding that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence.

         2. The magistrate judge erred in accepting the ALJ's determination that the plaintiff had engaged in past relevant work as a “gluer” in 2000.

         3. The magistrate judge erred in accepting the ALJ's adoption of only a part of psychologist Terry Edwards' opinion in making his decision regarding the plaintiff's residual functional capacity, when the ALJ had announced that he was assigning “considerable weight” and “incorporating” Edwards' opinion into the ALJ's finding regarding the plaintiff's functional capacity.

         4. The ALJ erred in failing to consider whether the plaintiff's failure to obtain more medical treatment resulted ...


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