United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CLIFTON L. CORKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with
consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 12]
for disposition and entry of a final judgment.
Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits
under the Social Security Act was administratively denied
following a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). This is an action for judicial review of
the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings [Doc. 13] and Defendant filed a Motion for Summary
Judgment [Doc. 15].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of review of the Commissioner's findings is narrow.
The Court is confined to determining (1) whether substantial
evidence supported the factual findings of the ALJ and (2)
whether the Commissioner conformed with the relevant legal
standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Brainard v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679,
681 (6th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” is
defined as evidence that is more than a mere scintilla and is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support the challenged conclusion. Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be enough
to justify, if the trial were to a jury, a refusal to direct
a verdict when the conclusion sought to be drawn is one of
fact for the jury. Lemaster v. Sec'y of Health &
Humans Servs., 802 F.2d 839, 841 (6th Cir. 1986). The
Court may not try the case de novo nor resolve
conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of
credibility. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387
(6th Cir. 1984). Even if the reviewing court were to resolve
the factual issues differently, the Commissioner's
decision must stand if supported by substantial evidence.
Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Services, 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). However, a
decision supported by substantial evidence “will not be
upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to
follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a
claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a
substantial right.” Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007).
claimant must be under a “disability” as defined
by the Social Security Act to be eligible for benefits.
Within the statutory meaning, a “disability”
includes physical and/or mental impairments that are both
“medically determinable” and severe enough to
prevent the claimant from (1) performing his past job and (2)
engaging in “substantial gainful activity” that
is available in the regional or national economies. 42 U.S.C.
regulations require a five-step sequential evaluation process
for disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4). A dispositive finding at any step ends an
ALJ's review, see Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d
727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). The complete review poses five
1. Has the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant suffer from one or more severe
3. Do the claimant's severe impairments, alone or in
combination, meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set
forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments (the
“Listings”), 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, Appendix 1?
4. Considering the claimant's [Residual Functional
Capacity], can he or she perform his or her past relevant
5. Assuming the claimant can no longer perform his or her
past relevant work -- and also considering the claimant's
age, education, past work experience, and RFC -- do
significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national
economy which the claimant can perform?
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4). “The
claimant has the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement
to benefits by proving the existence of a disability as
defined in 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), ” while the
Commissioner has the burden to establish the claimant's
ability to work under step five. Moon v. Sullivan,
923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).
RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL OVERVIEW
Plainitff's Billy Shipley's
(“Shipley's”) third attempt at obtaining
benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401 et seq. In this application, Shipley
asserts he is disabled due to degenerative disc disease,
diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, obesity, major
depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder (Doc.
8, Tr. 11) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote
the administrative record). He was a person closely
approaching advanced age under the regulations at the time of
his March 2013 application, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563, in
which he alleged a disability onset date of August 24, 2011
(Tr. 27, 187). The onset date was amended to a later date,
August 1, 2013, at the hearing in January 2015. (Tr. 35).
Shipley's insured status expired on December 31, 2013.
(Tr. 11). He must establish disability on or before that date
to be entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.130.
claims were initially denied on August 9, 2013, and again
upon reconsideration on November 19, 2014. (Tr. 110, 114). An
ALJ conducted a hearing on January 7, 2015 during which
Plaintiff and a Vocational Expert (“VE”)
testified. (Tr. 34-60).
conducted the five-step analysis in evaluating Shipley's
claims. The ALJ's January 15, 2015, decision found
Shipley had the severe impairments of degenerative disc
disease, diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, obesity,
major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
(Tr. 11). He also found Shipley had the residual functional
capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) with certain limitations. Those
limitations were that Shipley could perform and maintain
concentration for simple, routine, repetitive tasks for two
hour segments and has an ability to adapt to infrequent
changes in a work setting, and that involve no public
interaction and only occasional interaction with co-workers
and supervisors. (Tr. 13). He found Shipley could not return
to his past work and that transferability of job skills was
not material under the Medical-Vocational Rules. (Tr. 18). He
asked the vocational expert a hypothetical based on someone
with Shipley's RFC whether there were jobs in the
national economy. (Tr. 36-39). The VE identified a number of
different jobs available in the national and regional
economies. Accordingly, the ALJ found Shipley not disabled at
any time from August 1, 2013, the alleged onset date, through
December 31, 2013, the date last insured (20 CFR
404.1520(g)). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
review request, and Plaintiff appealed to this Court.
Evidence in the Record
decision includes a review of the underlying medical
evidence. (Tr. 12-17). Shipley's motion summarizes the
record evidence [Doc. 14, pp. 2-8] and the Commissioner's
motion does likewise [Doc. 16, pp. 3-13]. The transcript
contains records from three treating providers. Reference to
the evidence herein, both medical and otherwise, is only set
forth as necessary.
appeal, the primary issue for review is whether the
Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial
evidence. In that regard, Shipley argues that the ALJ failed
to properly weigh the medical opinions of the treating
sources, Ronald S. Smith, M.D., and Thomas J. Burns, Ph.D. He
also argues that the ALJ erred in the weight it gave the
State agency non-examining medical consultant as required by
SSR 96-6p. Next, he argues the ALJ failed to properly weigh
the subjective allegations and his credibility and that
substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's
credibility determination. Finally, he claims the ALJ erred
in his reliance upon the VE's testimony because the
hypothetical question posed to the VE did not include all of
The ALJ's analysis of the medical evidence
saw Ronald Smith, M.D. beginning in April 2011 (Tr. 360-417).
He saw Thomas J. Burns from July 2011 through June 2013 (Tr.
284, 286-301). There is no dispute that both Drs. Smith and
Burns are Shipley's treating physicians. Shipley claims
that the ALJ improperly evaluated both of their opinions in
finding him not disabled. He claims that the ALJ did not
follow the treating physician rule, the Commissioner's
own regulations regarding the weight to give the opinion of a
treating physician and failed to give good reasons for the
weight he did ascribe to their opinions.
must adhere to certain standards in assessing medical
evidence supporting a claim for disability benefits. The
“treating physician rule” requires the ALJ to
give controlling weight to the opinions of treating
[T]hese sources are likely to be the medical professionals
most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the
claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique
perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained
from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of
individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or
Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d, 541,
544 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). The ALJ
“must” give a treating source opinion controlling
weight if the treating source opinion is
“well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques” and is “not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the]
case record.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(d)(2)). However, “[i]t is an error to give
an opinion controlling weight simply because it is the
opinion of a treating source if it is not well-supported by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory ...