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Kanipes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

September 8, 2017

MICHAEL A. KANIPES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         This case is before the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the consent of the parties [Doc. 13]. Now before the Court is the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 14 & 14-1] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 15 & 16]. Michael A. Kanipes (“the Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”), the final decision of the Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”). For the reasons that follow, the Court will GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART the Plaintiff's motion, and GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART the Commissioner's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 8, 2010, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”), claiming a period of disability which began July 2, 2008, but was later amended to September 6, 2011. [Tr. 22, 180, 190, 214]. After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 126]. Following a hearing, the ALJ found the Plaintiff was “not disabled.” [Tr. 92-99]. The Appeals Council, however, remanded the case to the ALJ for further evaluation. [Tr. 22, 105-107]. A second hearing was held on May 6, 2014. [Tr. 39-54]. Following this second hearing, the ALJ again found the Plaintiff was “not disabled.” [Tr. 22-33]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review [Tr. 1-7], making the ALJ's second decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on April 8, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. [Doc. 1]. The parties have filed competing dispositive motions, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication. Having considered the medical evidence in the record, the testimony at the hearing, and all other evidence in the record, the Court finds that the medical history of the Plaintiff and the content of the ALJ's Decision are not in dispute, and need not be repeated here.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing the Commissioner's determination of whether an individual is disabled pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court is limited to determining whether the ALJ's decision was reached through application of the correct legal standards and in accordance with the procedure mandated by the regulations and rulings promulgated by the Commissioner and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004); Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). It is immaterial whether the record may also possess substantial evidence to support a different conclusion from that reached by the ALJ, or whether the reviewing judge may have decided the case differently. Crisp v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 790 F.2d 450, 453 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The substantial evidence standard is intended to create a “‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will 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) (citation omitted).

         On review, the plaintiff “bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec'y. of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         In the disability determination, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following additional limitations: he must avoid extreme noise and hazards; with his right hand, he can frequently handle, finger, feel, push, and pull; and he cannot climb ladders but can occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crawl, and crouch. [Tr. 25]. At step four, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as an HVAC service technician. [Tr. 32]. In making this finding, the ALJ relied on the Plaintiff's description of the physical requirements of his work. [Id.]. Despite finding that the Plaintiff had past relevant work, the ALJ made an alternative finding at step five. [Tr. 32-33]. Using the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ found that other work existed in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. [Id.].

         On appeal, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinions of record, including opinions from treating physicians Linda Harris, M.D., and William Mark Rice, M.D., and opinions from non-treating, examining physicians E. Brantley Burns, M.D., Clifford Davidson, M.D., and Jeffrey Uzzle, M.D. [Doc. 14-1 at 5-7]. The Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ's step four and step five determinations are not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not elicit any testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) with regard to the effects the Plaintiff's RFC would have on his ability to perform past work or other work in the national economy. [Id. at 5]. The Court will address each alleged error in turn.

         1. Treating Physician Opinions

         Under the Social Security Act and its implementing regulations, if a treating physician's opinion as to the nature and severity of an impairment is (1) well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and (2) is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record, it must be given “controlling weight.” 20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). When an opinion does not garner controlling weight, the appropriate weight to be given to an opinion will be determined based upon the length of treatment, frequency of examination, nature and extent of the treatment relationship, amount of relevant evidence that supports the opinion, the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole, the specialization of the source, and other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion. Id.

         When an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ must always give “good reasons” for the weight given to a treating source's opinion in the decision. Id. A decision denying benefits “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for the weight.” Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 at *5 (July 2, 1996). Nonetheless, the ultimate decision ...


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