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Bell v. Berryhill

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

June 7, 2017

DONNA E. BELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Donna Bell's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 14). For the reasons stated herein, Bell's Motion is DENIED.


         This is a civil action for judicial review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of benefits to Donna Bell on April 17, 2013. Bell filed an application for supplemental security income on December 21, 2010, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2010. The claim was denied by the SSA on May 20, 2011, and upon reconsideration on October 27, 2011. Bell filed a request for a hearing, and an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard Bell's case on March 15, 2013. The ALJ determined that Bell was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Doc. No. 10 at 15.)[2]


         The ALJ heard testimony from Bell and from Cindy Harris, a vocational expert. Bell testified that she had a 12th grade education, was 52 years old, was about 5' 9" tall, weighed 283 pounds, did not smoke, and had no issues with abusing alcohol or drugs. (A.R. 36-37.) She stated that she had not worked since January of 2010. (A.R. 37.) She testified that she supports herself with her child's and her grandchild's disability payments plus food stamps and child support. (Id.) She also stated that the money she received in 2009 and 2010 was for “helping people get their disability.” (A.R. 37, 44.)

         Bell testified that she had diabetes, took medicine for that condition, and checked her blood sugar. (A.R. 46.) She stated that the symptoms from her diabetes included losing a toe, having surgery on the other foot, tingling in her foot, and not being able to sit for a long time without moving around. (Id.) She further testified that she lost her balance when walking and now uses a cane. (A.R. 51.) Bell stated that she had breathing problems and used a breathing machine when needed. (A.R. 51-52.)

         Bell told the ALJ that she could stand only about 15 or 20 minutes at a time. (A.R. 53.) She needs to have help (a cane) to walk, and she can sit only about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. (Id.) She also testified that she lives with her five children and her grandson, and they help her bathe, cook, and clean. (A.R. 54.) She has tumors in her eyes, she cannot see a far distance, and bright lights and the sun hurt her eyes. (A.R. 55.) Bell takes medication for anxiety and depression. (A.R. 55-56.)

         The vocational expert, Cindy Harris, testified that, although there was no exact match in the Directory of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), she believed “case aide” probably came the closest to describing Bell's prior work. (A.R. 57.) The ALJ posed a hypothetical question to Harris as follows:

I want you to consider an individual between ages 48 and 52 years old. . . . Has got a[t] least high school education and past relevant work in the job you just described which is light, semi-skilled. For the first hypothetical, I want you to consider that the individual can perform exertional activities at a full range of light, postural activities on an occasional basis with no ladders, no duties that require balancing or crawling. So the individual can have - - should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, fumes, dust, gas inhalants, and all hazards. Also consider that the individual should have no duties that require the individual to walk on uneven surfaces. Consider from a mental standpoint that the individual can understand, remember, and carry out a full range of detailed tasks and instructions and can have frequent interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. Is that past relevant work going to be available?

(A.R. 58-59.)

         Harris testified that past relevant work would be available to such an individual and there also would be other jobs in the regional or national economy that would be available as well -- e.g., cashier, information clerk, interviewer. (A.R. 59.)

         When the ALJ added the limitations of standing and walking only 15 to 20 minutes at a time and less than two hours per day, with the aid of a cane, and lifting only from a seated position, Harris testified that the jobs she had identified would not be available. (A.R. 59-60.) She stated, however, that there would be a reduced number[3] of “light” positions with these limitations -- jobs classified as light, but performed from a seated position. (A.R. 60-61.)

         When the ALJ added the limitation of recurring absences of at least two to three days per month, Harris testified that such an individual would not be able to sustain employment. (A.R. 62.)


         The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits by proving his or her “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant's physical or mental impairment must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         In determining disability, the SSA and the ALJ consider a five-step sequential evaluation process. The Sixth Circuit has described these five steps as:

(1) A claimant who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
(2) A claimant 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 a claimant 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. Claimants with lesser impairments proceed to step four.
(4) A claimant who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
(5) If a claimant cannot perform his 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.

Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007).


         The ALJ in this case made the following findings:

1. Bell has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 21, 2010, ...

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