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McKennon v. Social Security Administration

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

May 30, 2017

PATSY McKENNON, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Patsy McKennon's pro se Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 16), to which the Social Security Administration (SSA) has responded (Doc. No. 20.) Plaintiff filed a reply to the SSA's response. (Doc. No. 23.) Upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. No. 12), [1]and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment will be DENIED and the decision of the SSA will be AFFIRMED.

         I. Magistrate Judge Referral

         In order to ensure the prompt resolution of this matter, the Court will VACATE the referral to the Magistrate Judge. (Doc. No. 3.)

         II. Introduction

         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on December 15, 2011, and an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act on January 9, 2012, [2] alleging disability onset as of October 14, 2011, [3] due to scoliosis and L2-L3[4] deterioration. (Tr. 156.) Her claim for benefits was denied at the initial and reconsideration stages of state agency review. Plaintiff subsequently requested de novo review of her case by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Plaintiff's case was heard on February 20, 2013, when she appeared with counsel and gave testimony. (Tr. 25-48.) Testimony was also received from an impartial vocational expert. (Id.) At the conclusion of the hearing, the matter was taken under advisement until May 2, 2013, when the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 6-24.) That decision contains the following enumerated 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 October 14, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: mild scoliosis; obesity; and depression (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. [T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with limitations. Specifically, from a postural stand point the claimant could frequently climb ramps and stairs, but only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and occasionally crawl; and she should avoid production rate pace work, as might be found on an assembly line.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on August 26, 1966 and was 45 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).
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, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 14, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 12, 14, 19-20.)

         On July 16, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-3), thereby rendering that decision the final decision of the SSA. This civil action was thereafter timely filed, and the court has jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole, then those findings are conclusive. Id.

         III. Prior Claim and Finding

         Prior to filing the current applications, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on February 23, 2009. In her prior applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March 11, 2006. Both applications were denied at the initial and reconsideration stages of state agency review. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested de novo review of her case by an ALJ. The prior ALJ, Claire R. Strong, heard the case on September 20, 2011. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing, as did an impartial vocational expert. At the conclusion of the hearing, the matter was taken under advisement until October 13, 2011, when a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled was issued. (Tr. 49-66.)

         In her written decision, ALJ Strong found that Plaintiff:

has the residual functional capacity to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for 6 hours; sit for 6 hours; frequently climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl; occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and heights; may demonstrate mild difficulty in her ability to consistently understand and remember complex instructions, directions and procedures within the work place, consistently and appropriately interact with co-workers, supervisors and the public and consistently and appropriately respond to changes in the job schedule on an independent basis; mild to moderate difficulty in her ability to sustain concentration and persistence for making complex work-like decisions within the job setting, in her ability to persist during work days without interruptions from psychological symptoms and in her ability to consistently and appropriately take necessary precautions against perceived hazards within the workplace.

(Tr. 56-57.)

         IV. Review of the Record

         Prior to reviewing Plaintiff's medical records, the ALJ noted the October 13, 2011, unfavorable decision and explained that:

[T]he claimant did not request that [ALJ Strong's] decision be reviewed by the Appeals Council. Thus, [that] decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security for that case and it is binding as to the determination of disability through that date. Under the provisions of the Dennard/Drummond[5] [line of cases] and attendant acquiescence rulings, [6] adjudications of any subsequently filed applications under the same title are bound by the residual functional capacity and other vocational information found in the prior final decision, absent evidence of a significant change in the claimant's medical condition during a relevant period. Review of the claimant's new application reveals that the claimant's alleged onset date falls after the previous Administrative Law Judge decision and, therefore, the entire period at question in this application is new and material and has not been previously adjudicated. The medical evidence shows that the claimant's overall medical condition has changed. The undersigned finds that the evidence in this matter suggests that the claimant's residual functional capacity during the relevant period, since the previous Administrative Law Judge decision, is not as restrictive as that determined by [the previous ALJ] in the prior claim.

(Tr. 9.) Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff's condition had improved since ALJ Strong's decision, he was not bound by ALJ Strong's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. See Rudd v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 F. App'x 719, 725-26 (6th Cir. 2013) (noting that where new evidence established that the Plaintiff's condition had improved, the ALJ was not bound by prior residual functional capacity assessment).

         The ALJ then summarized Plaintiff's medical records as follows:

Medical records document a limited treatment history with sporadic visits for acute issues and injuries during the period in question. Records reveal that, after her alleged onset date of October 14, 2011, the claimant was initially treated at the emergency department for an injury to her head in November of 2011. The claimant reported that she had been doing yard work when she was struck in the head by a tree limb. Even when the claimant returned to the emergency department, a week later, with continued headache complaints, computed tomography (CT) scans of her head were noted to be normal (Exhibit B10F).
Thereafter, the claimant returned to the emergency room on three other occasions with complaints of injuries. In December of 2011, the claimant reported that she had fallen and hurt her right wrist, left ankle, and low back. Despite the claimant's complaints of pain, she was noted to exhibit a steady gait with independent ambulation, a full range of motion in all tested areas, no weakness in any tested area, and a normal neurological examination. Diagnostic testing was also noted to be relatively normal, as x-rays of the claimant's right wrist and left ankle could not rule out tiny avulsion fractures and x-rays of the claimant's lumbar spine revealed degenerative disc disease at the L2-L3 level, but x-ray studies of the claimant's left foot, left tibia, left fibula, left knee, and right forearm were all normal. Records reveal that the claimant followed her visit to the emergency room with a trip ...

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