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Seachrist v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 21, 2017




         Plaintiff David Seachrist filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act") and an application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits based on disability under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiffs 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 February 27, 2013. On April 19, 2013, the ALJ denied the claim. The Appeals Council denied the request for review. Thus, the decision 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 October 22, 1967, and alleges that he became disabled on February 16, 2011. In his Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to major depression, an anxiety disorder, nerve problems, a learning disability, and stomach problems caused by h. pylori. He has past relevant work as a janitor.

         The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 2012; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, dysthymia, and avoidant personality 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 work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: he has the ability to understand, remember, and carry out and make judgments only on simple work-related decisions and can occasionally interact with supervisors and co-workers; he is unable to perform work involving interaction with the public, production rate paced work (quota assembly line work), and changing work procedures or requirements; (5) Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a janitor/cleaner; in the alternative, there are other jobs in the national economy that he can perform (6) Plaintiff was defined as a younger individual on the alleged onset date and has a limited education; (7) transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules ("the Grids") as a framework supports a finding that Plaintiff is not disabled whether or not he has transferable job skills; (8) considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, even if he cannot perform his past relevant work; (9) Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of this decision.[8]

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.[9] The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits.[10]The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he or she is disabled from engaging in his or her 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.[11]

         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.[12]

         Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis.[13] Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the forth step and, alternatively to the fifth step, with a finding that Plaintiff can perform his past relevant work, but, even if he cannot, there is a substantial number of jobs in the national economy that he can perform.

         Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's findings. He specifically argues that the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential process and in the weighing of the medical opinion evidence and his credibility. Plaintiffs arguments are not persuasive.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred at step three when he found that he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that medically equal any listing section, specifically Listings 12.04 (affective disorders), § 12.05 (mental retardation), and § 12.06 (anxiety disorder). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, dysthymia, and avoidant personality disorder. However, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that medically met any listing section. When a claimant alleges that his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, he must present specific medical findings that satisfy the criteria of the particular listing.[14] Not only must a claimant show that he has a diagnosed condition found in the listings, he must also provide medical records documenting that it meets all the requirements of the applicable listing.[15]

         The above cited listings provide in relevant part:

12.04. Affective Disorders: Characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation.
The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied or when the requirements in C are satisfied.
A. Medically documented persistence, either continuous or intermittent, of one of the following:
1. Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:
a. Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; or
b. Appetite disturbance with change in weight; or
c. Sleep disturbance; or
d. Psychomotor agitation or retardation; or
e. Decreased energy; or
f. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness; or
g. Difficulty concentrating or thinking; or
h. Thoughts of suicide; or
i. Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking; . . .
B. Resulting in at least two of the following:
1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or
2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or
3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; or
4. Repeated episodes of decompensation each of extended ...

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