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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

September 14, 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. 13]. Now before the Court is the Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 19 & 20] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 23 & 24]. Rodney Bruce 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 DENY the Plaintiff's motion, and GRANT the Commissioner's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 8, 2010, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income, claiming a period of disability that began on December 31, 2010. [Tr. 173]. After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr.121]. Following a hearing, the ALJ found the Plaintiff was “not disabled.” [Tr. 21-37]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review [Tr. 1-6], making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on May 25, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. [Doc. 2]. 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) (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

         The Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination is not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except he can manipulate gross objects but not fine objects due to some limitation in bilateral dexterity, and he should work with things rather than people.” [Tr. 29]. The Plaintiff submits that (1) the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinion of medical expert Allan R. Goldstein, M.D., regarding the Plaintiff's physical limitations, and (2) the ALJ relied on his own lay opinion, rather than the medical opinions of record, in assessing the Plaintiff's mental limitations. [Doc. 20 at 7-13].

         “[O]pinions from nontreating and nonexamining sources are never assessed for ‘controlling weight.'” Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013; see Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) (holding that opinions rendered by one-time examiners are not entitled to any special degree of deference). Instead, the opinions are weighed “based on the examining relationship (or lack thereof), specialization, consistency, and supportability.” Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)). “Other factors ‘which tend to support or contradict the opinion' may be considered in assessing any type of medical opinion.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(6)).

         A. Medical Opinion of Allan R. Goldstein, M.D.

         Dr. Goldstein appeared at the administrative hearing as an impartial medical expert and rendered an opinion on the severity of the Plaintiff's back impairment, as well as the functional limitations resulting from a right wrist impairment. [Tr. 24, 51]. Dr. Goldstein testified that based on treatment records from a pain clinic, the Plaintiff's report of back and neck pain and leg weaknesses and numbness were symptoms “consistent with a disc disease with depression on the nerves.” [Tr. 51 (citing Exhibit 13F)]. Dr. Goldstein attributed the Plaintiff's back impairment to a four-wheeler accident that occurred in June 2013. [Tr. 51, 393]. CT scans that were taken following the accident revealed degenerative disc disease and spondylosis at ¶ 6-7, a non-displaced pelvic facture, and “normal” thoracic spine. [Tr. 385]. The orthopedic doctor who evaluated the Plaintiff recommended non-operative treatment, but the Plaintiff did not return for his follow-up appointment. [Tr. 341].

         Dr. Goldstein opined that based on the Plaintiff's back and neck discomfort, as well as leg weakness and numbness, the Plaintiff's impairment equaled Listing 1.04A. [Tr. 51-52]. Dr. Goldstein observed that because no MRI was performed to prove the presence of disc disease with depression of the ...

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