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Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

April 26, 2017




         Plaintiff Michael E. Taylor filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on October 4, 2012. On January 3, 2013, the ALJ denied the claim. The Appeals Council subsequently denied the request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the 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.”[1] The Court's review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, [2] and whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3]

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[4] It is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.”[5] The Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide the case accordingly.[6] When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.[7]

         Plaintiff was born on August 2, 1961, and he completed the eighth grade. He testified that his last job was in maintenance at a nursing home where he ran a machine to clean the floors. He alleges disability beginning September 20, 2010, due to emphysema, high blood pressure, left shoulder pain, low back pain, and pain in both legs from previous burns.

         The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through June 30, 2014; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) and depressive disorder; but he does not have impairments, either alone or in combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that he should avoid concentrated exposure to dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants; mentally, he can understand and remember simple and one to three step detailed tasks; can concentrate and persist for at least a two hour time period in an eight hour workday with customary breaks; can interact appropriately with the public, co-workers, and supervisors; and can adapt to routine workplace changes; (5) Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a cleaner/housekeeper doing floor maintenance; (6) Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of this decision.

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.[8] The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits.[9] The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he is disabled from engaging in his former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[10]

         The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.[11]

         Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis.[12] Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the fourth step with a finding that Plaintiff can perform his past relevant work. The Court finds that substantial evidence supports this determination.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical evidence and that the ALJ did not consider all his disabling conditions, especially his mental conditions, when finding that his residual functional capacity allowed him to perform his past relevant. Plaintiff's arguments are not persuasive.

         Plaintiff has not pointed to evidence indicating that the ALJ's residual functional capacity findings overlooked any impairments resulting from his conditions.[13] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b) with certain limitations described above. As noted previously, the initial burden of going forward is on Plaintiff to show that he is disabled from engaging in his former employment;[14] once he makes that showing, the burden of going forward shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[15] Accordingly, it is Plaintiff's burden to prove that he has disabling limitations, not the ALJ's. The mere fact that Plaintiff has a diagnosis or diagnoses does not mean that he has disabling limitations because a diagnosis, in and of itself, “says nothing about the severity of the condition.”[16] Instead, the ALJ must consider the actual work-related impact of those diagnoses. As long as the ALJ considers all of an individual's impairments, as the ALJ did in the present case, the “failure to find additional severe impairments . . . does not constitute reversible error.”[17]

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible based on a lack of objective medical evidence to support his complaints of disability, lack of treatment, activities of daily living, and inconsistencies between his statements and the other evidence of record. The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's age and education in making his decision.

         A claimant's credibility comes into question when his “complaints regarding symptoms, or their intensity and persistence, are not supported by objective medical evidence.[18] “To assess credibility, the ALJ must consider “the entire case record, ” including “any medical signs and lab findings, the claimant's own complaints of symptoms, any information provided by the treating physicians and others, as well as any other relevant evidence contained in the record.”[19] This Court is required to “accord the ALJ's determinations of credibility great weight and deference particularly since the ALJ has the opportunity, which we do not, of observing a witness's demeanor while testifying.”[20] However, the Court is mindful that the ALJ's credibility finding “must find support in the record.”[21]

         Here, the Court finds no error in the ALJ's credibility assessment. Although Plaintiff presented objective medical evidence of underlying conditions that could reasonably cause the kind of limitations alleged by Plaintiff, the ALJ could properly find that Plaintiff's statements about his alleged symptoms were inconsistent with the evidence of record.[22] An ALJ may dismiss a claimant's allegations of disabling symptomatology as implausible if the subjective allegations, the ALJ's personal observations, and the objective medical evidence contradict, as in the present case.[23]

         In making his decision, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's treatment. Although Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled due to a bike accident resulting in a liver laceration and problems with his left shoulder, right leg, knees, and feet, the record does not contain any significant, ongoing treatment related to these allegations. Additionally, treatment records do not document that Plaintiff had persistent, ongoing complaints of symptoms attributable to the above stated allegations. On examination Plaintiff could rise from a sitting position without difficulty, his gait was normal, he could stand on his right leg alone and his left leg alone, and stand on his toes and heels bilaterally; he had normal flexion and extension of his knees bilaterally and normal extensor function of his feet and ankles.[24] Various treatment notes confirm that Plaintiff had no musculoskeletal or neurologic complaints.[25]

         While Plaintiff claims that he is disabled due to emphysema and Plaintiff does have a history of COPD, the evidence does not show that Plaintiff received significant, ongoing treatment nor did he have persistent, ongoing complaints for this condition. Testing revealed moderate impairment; however, an examination of Plaintiff's lungs was normal, and Plaintiff reported no respiratory complaints.[26] Additionally, Plaintiff smokes, which is inconsistent with someone who alleges disabling respiratory conditions, and militates against a finding of disability.[27]

         Although Plaintiff suffered from depression and problems understanding and concentrating, he did not seek treatment for his mental health complaints.[28] During a consultative psychological examination with Dr. Stephen Rutledge, Plaintiff's thought processes were clear and logical, and, while he showed severe impairment in his short-term memory and his ability to sustain concentration, he appeared able to follow written and spoken instructions.[29]Though he appeared to function in the borderline range of intellectual functioning on his first examination with Dr. Rutledge, during a subsequent examination, Dr. Rutledge noted that Plaintiff was logical and sequential in his responses and appeared to be alert to what was going on around him.[30] Because Plaintiff's level of social awareness was not common in individuals who functioned in the borderline range, Dr. Rutledge opined that Plaintiff did not have borderline intellectual functioning.[31]

         Plaintiff saw William Fulliton, Ph.D., for a third psychological consultative examination. Plaintiff reported that he had never been hospitalized for mental health treatment, never sought mental health treatment, and did not complain of any current health problems.[32] He was alert and oriented, displayed no articulation problems, and his thought processes were clear.[33] Dr. Fulliton diagnosed him with alcohol dependence.[34] Plaintiff's failure to seek regular treatment is inconsistent with his claims of disability due to his mental health impairments.[35]

         Plaintiff's activities of daily living also revealed that he was not as limited as he alleged. Plaintiff could prepare simple meals, watch movies, clean the bathroom, take out the trash, wash dishes, talk to friends and family, occasionally attend church, take medication without reminders, walk, grocery shop, and pay bills.[36] An ALJ may consider a claimant's activities of daily living when assessing his subjective complaints.[37]

         Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to consider all of his impairments, including mental restrictions, that arose secondary to his anxiety, pain, physical findings, and conditions. No doctor found that Plaintiff had additional physical restrictions or mental restrictions from anxiety, pain, or other physical findings and conditions. Even if Plaintiff had presented such medical evidence, because the ALJ considered all of Plaintiff's impairments, severe and non-severe, in the remaining steps of the sequential evaluation process, any lapse in the ALJ's decision regarding which impairments of Plaintiff's were severe was harmless error.[38]Therefore, the ALJ's consideration of Plaintiff's impairments was proper, and substantial evidence supports his findings.

         Plaintiff also complains that the ALJ did not properly consider the medical opinion evidence in the record. The regulations require that if the opinion of the claimant's treating physician is ‘“well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques' and [is] ‘not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, '” it must be given “controlling weight.”[39] “If the opinion of a treating source is not accorded controlling weight, an ALJ must apply certain factors - namely, the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and the specialization of the treating source-in determining what weight to give the opinion.”[40]Even if the treating physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, “there remains a presumption, albeit a rebuttable one, that the opinion of a treating physician is entitled to great deference.”[41]

         If the treating physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, the ALJ is required to provide “good reasons” for discounting it and that rationale must be supported by the evidence in the record and “must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator ...

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