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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

September 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         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. 18]. Now before the Court is the Plaintiff s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 19 & 20] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 21 & 22]. Richard B. Johnson ("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 the Plaintiffs motion, and DENY the Commissioner's motion.


         On August 20, 2012, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, claiming a period of disability which began September 1, 2005. [Tr. 197, 201]. After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, the Plaintfif requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 106]. Following a hearing, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was "not disabled" on October 3, 2017. [Tr. 11-25]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiffs request for review [Tr. 1-6], and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         After exhausting his administrative remedies, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on June 10, 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.


         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) (quotingMullen 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

         The Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") determination, contending that it is not supported by substantial evidence based on the opinion evidence of record. [Tr. 20 at 7-11]. "The determination of a claimant's [RFC] is a determination based upon the severity of his medical and mental impairments." Her v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999). The RFC describes "the claimant's residual abilities or what a claimant can do, not what maladies a claimant suffers from-though the maladies will certainly inform the ALJ's conclusion about the claimant's abilities." Howardv. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 276 F.3d 235, 240 (6th Cir. 2002). Therefore, "[a] claimant's severe impairment may or may not affect his or her functional capacity to do work. One does not necessarily establish the other." Griffeth v. Comm 'r of Soc Sec, 217 F.App'x 425, 429 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2007).

         The ALJ is responsible for making an RFC determination after reviewing all the relevant evidence in the record. Ruddv. Comm 'r of Soc Sec, No. 12-6136, 2013 WL 4767020, at *8 (6th Cir. Sept. 5, 2013). This includes a review of both medical and non-medical evidence. Poe v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 342 F.App'x 149, 157 (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2009). A court will not disturb an ALJ's RFC determination so long as the finding is supported by substantial evidence. Jones v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003).

         In the disability determination, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of sedentary work. [Tr. 19]. The physical exertional demands of sedentary work require "lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.1567(a). In this regard, a full range of sedentary work requires that a claimant be able to stand and walk for approximately two hours and remain seated for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday. Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-9p, 1996 WL 374185, at *6 (July 2, 1996).

         Concluding that the Plaintiff has an RFC for a full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the medical opinions of consultative examiners Raymond Azbell M.D., and Christopher Brooks M.D., and two non-examining state agency physicians. [Tr. 19-20]. Dr. Azbell opined that the Plaintiff could lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, carry 10 to 15 pounds occasionally, sit for about one hour at one time, stand and walk for 30 to 45 minutes at one time, slowly climb stairs, but never ladders or scaffolds, and occasionally balance. [Tr. 259]. Dr. Brooks opined similar limitations, observing that the Plaintiff could walk for 20 minutes, stand for 45 minutes, sit for one hour, and lift up to 25 pounds. [Tr. 302].

         The non-examining state agency physicians opined similar lifting and carrying restrictions but less restrictive standing, walking, and sitting limitations. Specifically, the state agency physicians opined that the Plaintiff could carry and lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, but the Plaintiff could stand and/or walk six hours and sit for six hours. [Tr. 48-49, 82]. Many of the state agency physicians' postural limitations also mirrored Dr. Azbell's limitations in that the Plaintiff could frequently climb, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally balance and crawl, and frequently stoop, kneel, and crouch. [Tr. 49, 83]. In addition, the first state agency physician opined that the Plaintiff had environmental restrictions against concentrated exposure to extreme cold or ...

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