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Sarber v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville Division

August 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 14] for disposition and entry of a final judgment. Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and/or Supplemental Security Income 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 and Defendant each filed Motions for Summary Judgment [Docs. 15, 19].


         The 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).

         A 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. § 423(a).

         A five-step sequential evaluation process applies in disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920. A dispositive finding at any step ends a review, see Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). The complete review poses five questions:

1. Has the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant suffer from one or more severe impairments?
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 work?
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).


         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff, Ronald Wayne Sarber (“Sarber”), asserts he is disabled due to a back disorder and social anxiety disorder (Tr. 15) (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 and 416.963, in which he alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2012 (Tr. 13). He was a person of advanced age at the time of the December 3, 2014, Decision.

         Sarber's insured status expired on June 30, 2016. (Tr. 15). He must establish disability on or before that date to be entitled to benefits. Sarber's claims were initially denied on September 26, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on December 23, 2013. (Tr. 118, 123). An ALJ conducted a hearing on November 12, 2014; Plaintiff and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified. (Tr. 30-50).

         The ALJ conducted the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims. The ALJ's Decision (Tr. 13) made several findings, including that Sarber was not disabled:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2016;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2012, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.);
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: a back disorder and social anxiety disorder (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 406.926);
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except that he can perform occasional postural activity (climbing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling) and occasional overhead reaching bilaterally. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards, and he is limited to performing simple, unskilled work. In addition, the claimant should work with things rather than people, having only occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, or the public;
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 401.1565 and 416.965);
7. The claimant was born on January 30, 1958, and was 53 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963);
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR ...

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