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Roberts v. Berryhill

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

June 13, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration


          ALETA A. TRAUGER, U.S. District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Pending before the court is the Plaintiff's Motion For Judgment On The Administrative Record (Docket No. 15), and the Defendant's Response (Docket No. 17) in opposition. For the reasons set forth herein, the Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED, and the decision of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.

         II. Procedural Background

         This appeal arises out of the Plaintiff's June 2011 application for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act that was denied by the Social Security Administration. (Administrative Record (“AR”), at 68, 168 (Docket No. 11)). The Plaintiff had filed a previous application for benefits, which was heard by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on May 11, 2010, and denied in a decision issued on June 23, 2010. (Id., at 68, 111-117). In reaching his decision, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had the severe impairments of “surgery for a fractured hip and chronic back pain, ” and was limited to the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”): light work except that he could stand/walk for four hours of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks, but was precluded from all climbing of ramps, ropes and ladders, and must avoid all work hazards, such as moving machinery and heights. (Id., at 68, 113). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could perform the jobs of production inspector, hand packager, and production laborer. (Id., at 68, 117). The Plaintiff did not appeal. (Id., at 68).

         With regard to the June 2011 application, after receiving initial denials of the application, the Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held by another ALJ on March 4, 2013. (Id., at 68, 80-107, 136). The Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with counsel, and testified in support of his claim. (Id.)

         The ALJ issued a written decision on May 13, 2013, finding that although the Plaintiff's condition was not materially changed since the previous decision, the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity limited him to unskilled sedentary work. (Id., at 68). Nevertheless, the ALJ concluded, the Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.) In reaching his decision, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 13, 2011, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: history of surgery for fractured hip and chronic back pain (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 the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a).
5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on July 4, 1967 and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the date the application was filed. The claimant subsequently changed age category to a younger individual age 45-49 (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
8. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because applying the Medical-Vocational Rules directly supports a finding of ‘not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
9. 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 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 13, 2011, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)).

(AR, at 70-74).

         The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision (AR, at 1-7), which became the final decision of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083, 147 L.Ed.2d 80 (2000). This action, seeking review of that decision, has been timely filed, and the Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to adjudicate it.

         III. The ALJ Hearing

         At the hearing before the ALJ, the Plaintiff testified that he was 45 years old and had dropped out of school in the eleventh grade. (AR, at 83). The Plaintiff further testified that he was divorced and had lived with his mother and father since 2007. (Id., at 83). According to the Plaintiff, his father was bedridden and his mother was a cancer survivor with back problems. (Id., at 84). The Plaintiff testified that he was a smoker, but had reduced his smoking to four cigarettes a day. (Id., at 85). The Plaintiff described his past occupation as a laborer in the home construction industry. (Id., at 86-87).

         According to the Plaintiff, his most serious medical problem was his back, then his right hip, and then his left shoulder. (Id., at 87-88). The Plaintiff testified that he also suffered from depression, which he said bothered him more than his shoulder and hip. (Id.) In describing his back problem, the Plaintiff testified that he was in constant pain, but that the degree of pain varies. (Id., at 90). When his back pain is bad, the Plaintiff testified, he stays in the bed all day. (Id., at 90-91). The Plaintiff rated his pain on a scale of zero to ten, increasing in severity, as an eight on a bad day and a three or four on a good day. (Id., at 91).

         The Plaintiff described the accidents in which he had been involved, including an accident that occurred on April 10, 2006 in which his hip was injured when the horse he was riding was struck by a truck. (Id., at 91-92). As a result of that accident, the Plaintiff testified, he could no longer perform the construction work he had performed prior to the accident. (Id., at 92-93). The Plaintiff testified that he still suffered from hip pain, which he rated as a six or seven on a scale of zero to ten. (Id., at 93).

         According to the Plaintiff, his shoulder pain began approximately one year prior to the hearing. (Id., at 93). The Plaintiff testified that his shoulder pain occurs about once a month, generally lasting a few days, and that the pain can reach an eight on the ten-point scale. (Id., at 94).

         Regarding his mental condition, the Plaintiff indicated that he began going to the Plateau Mental Health Center in October 2010 because he was suffering from depression. (Id., at 95-96). The Plaintiff testified that he tried to commit suicide a year or so after his accident but could not go through with it. (Id., at 96). Although he was given medications by the doctors at Plateau, the Plaintiff explained, the medications made him sick and did not help. (Id.) After a few months, the Plaintiff said he began to see care providers at Personal Growth and Learning Center. (Id., at 96-97). Those care providers focused more on talking to him rather than using drugs, the Plaintiff testified, and he preferred that approach. (Id., at 97). The Plaintiff indicated that he had been taking Seroquel, which was prescribed by Personal Growth providers to help him sleep. (Id.) The Plaintiff explained that he did not want a medication that would knock him out because he needed to be able to hear his father in case he was needed during the night. (Id.) Although he helped out with his father, the Plaintiff testified, he was limited in that regard by his back pain. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff then discussed his difficulties with academics as a child and his bouts of depression. (Id., at 99). The Plaintiff explained that the depression led him to cut himself as a child, and that he had cut himself within the last six months. (Id., at 99). The Plaintiff also described difficulties with his mind racing, his lack of appetite, crying practically every day, and being around other people. (Id., at 99-101). The Plaintiff did describe occasional visits with his neighbors. (Id., at 101). In addition, to his back, hip, shoulder, and depression, the Plaintiff testified that his left hand occasionally cramps. (Id., at 102).

         The Plaintiff testified that he occasionally helped with housework, such as doing the dishes, feeding his father or vacuuming the house, but had not been able to do yard work since the summer of 2012. (Id., at 103). According to the Plaintiff, his ability to sit and stand varies from day to day, and estimated that on some days, he could sit for 45 minutes to an hour without pain. (Id., at 103-104). The Plaintiff testified that he could walk, on a good day, for about 15 minutes, albeit with a limp. (Id., at 104-05). For the last several months, the Plaintiff said, he had been lying down most of the day. (Id., at 105).

         IV. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         This court's review of the SSA decision to deny benefits is “‘limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” 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, 405-06 (6th Cir. 2009)). “Substantial evidence” constitutes “‘more than a scintilla' but less than a preponderance” and is “such ‘relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001)). In making that determination, the court is to examine the evidence in the record as a whole and “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Conner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 658 F. App'x 248, 253 (6th Cir. 2016)(quoting Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990)). If the court finds substantial evidence to support the decision, it must affirm and “may not inquire whether the record could support a different decision.” Id. The court may not resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility. Id.; Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012). If the ALJ fails to follow agency rules and regulations, however, his or her decision is not supported by substantial evidence, even if the ALJ's conclusion may be justified based upon the record. Miller, 811 F.3d at 833.

         B. The Five-Step Analysis

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “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). A “physical or mental impairment” is defined as “an impairment that results 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 whether the claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ is to apply a five-step sequential analysis set forth in the applicable regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); 416.920; Kepke v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 636 F. App'x 625, 627-28 (6thCir. 2016). “If the claimant is found to be conclusively disabled or not disabled at any step, the inquiry ends at that step.” Id., at ...

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