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Strimel v. Berryhill

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

September 15, 2017

JASON E. STRIMEL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Clifton L. Corker UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 17] for disposition and entry of a final judgment. Plaintiff's application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and/or Title XVI 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 filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. 18] and Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 20].

         I. APPLICABLE LAW - STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         It is the claimant's burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability under 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) or 1382c(a)(3)(A). See Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994). The Commissioner has the burden to establish the claimant's ability to work at step five. Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

         II. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL OVERVIEW

         A. Procedural History

         Jason E. Strimel (“Strimel”), was found to have the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and borderline intellectual functioning per the Decision.[1] (Doc. 13, Transcript p.15) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). He was a younger person under the regulations at the time of his January 8, 2013 application, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 and 416.963. He alleged a disability onset date of December 15, 2011, (Tr. 12), and his insured status expired on December 31, 2011. (Tr. 15).

         Strimel's claims were initially denied on June 27, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on October 14, 2013. (Tr. 107). An ALJ conducted a hearing on December 11, 2014. Plaintiff testified; a Vocational Expert (“VE”) was present but did not testify. (Tr. 30-38).

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

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.);
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and borderline intellectual functioning (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 416.926);
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 it should be unskilled and entry-level work;
6. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965);
7. The claimant was born on September 26, 1983, and was 28 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963);[2]
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964);
9. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968);
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a));
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 15, 2011, though the date of this decision (20 ...

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