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Gillenwater v. Berryhill

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

September 27, 2017

JAMIE S. GILLENWATER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Clifford Shirley, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.

         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. 19]. Now before the Court is the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 14 & 15] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 20 & 21]. Jamie S. Gillenwater (“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 February 14, 2012, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., claiming a period of disability that began on November 30, 2011. [Tr. 62, 162-64]. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 83]. Following the hearing [Tr. 55-82], the ALJ issued a decision on October 2, 2014, finding the Plaintiff was “not disabled.” [Tr. 37-49]. 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 her administrative remedies, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on May 16, 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. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

         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

         On appeal, the Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

         “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.” Howard v. 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. Rudd v. 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).

         The Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's RFC determination on the basis that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinions of treating rheumatologist, Kimberly A. Leaird, M.D. [Doc. 15 at 18-25]. The Plaintiff contends that Dr. Leaird's opinion is supported by her treatment notes and other substantial evidence in the record, including treatment records from treating neurologist George Wheatley, M.D., and third-party statement letters written by the Plaintiff's previous employer and co-workers. [Id. at 18-24]. Moreover, the Plaintiff ...


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