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Lacy v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

October 10, 2017

CARMEN LACY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER

          S. THOMAS ANDERSON CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Carmen Lacy filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) and an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits based on disability under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on March 14, 2013. On May 31, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and, thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.”[1] The Court's review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, and whether the correct legal standards were applied.[2]

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[3] It is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than preponderance.”[4] The Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide a case accordingly.[5] When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.[6]

         Plaintiff was born on February 29, 1968, and alleges that she became disabled beginning March 12, 2010. In her disability report, she alleged disability due to nerves, depression, high blood pressure, pain, headaches, slipped disks, and anemia. She has a GED and attended some vocational school classes. She has past relevant work experience as a retail sales clerk and as a factory worker.

         The ALJ enumerated the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2011; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: multi-joint pain, myalgias, hypertension, and mild levoscoliosis of the lumbar spine with low back pain; but she does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and 416. (67(c); she is capable of: lifting and carrying up to fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; standing and/or walking six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; sitting six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; unlimited pushing or pulling; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and she must avoid exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery; (5) Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work, or, alternatively, she can perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including work as a box bender, laminating machine off bearer, and laundry laborer; (6) Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, through the date of the ALJ's decision.[7]

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.[8] The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing entitlement to benefits.[9] The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he or she is disabled from engaging in his or her former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[10]

         The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he or she has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.[11]

         Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis.[12] Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the fourth step. The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a retail sales attendant or as a production assembler and, therefore, was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ also found that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform.

         Plaintiff contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision. She specifically objects to his weighing of the medical evidence and claims that he failed to perform the requisite evaluation under Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (1997), which held that a prior ALJ decision is binding on a subsequent ALJ unless there is evidence of improvement in the claimant's condition. Plaintiff's arguments are not persuasive.

         Looking at the Drummond argument first, Plaintiff notes that a previous ALJ's decision from November 16, 2007, had found that she could lift less weight and walk and stand less than as determined by the current ALJ. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not justify changing the residual functional capacity from the earlier decision as required by Drummond (“Absent evidence of an improvement in a claimant's condition, a subsequent ALJ is bound by the findings of a previous ALJ.”).[13]

         When “a final decision of SSA after a hearing on a prior disability claim contains a finding of a claimant's residual functional capacity, SSA may not make a different finding in adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an unadjudicated period arising under the same title of the Act as the prior claim unless new and additional evidence or changed circumstances provide a basis for a different finding of the claimant's residual functional capacity.”[14] However, “[n]either Drummond nor ruling 98-4(6) require the ALJ to make specific comparisons with the evidence supporting the prior final decision. The acquiescence ruling states that the proper inquiry is whether ‘new and additional evidence or changed circumstances provide a basis for a different finding of the claimant's residual functional capacity.'”[15] In this case, the ALJ explicitly determined that Plaintiff's “over all physical condition [had] significantly changed, ” thus satisfying the requirements of Drummond.[16] The ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence as discussed below. Accordingly, this argument fails.

         Next, Plaintiff complains of the ALJ's weighing of the medical evidence. At step four of the sequential analysis, the ALJ compares the claimant's residual functional capacity with the requirements of the claimant's past work.[17] Past relevant work is, generally, a job that was performed within the last fifteen years, performed long enough to learn how to perform the job, and was substantial gainful activity.[18] If the past job did not require the claimant to perform activities in excess of the claimant's residual functional capacity, the claimant will be found not disabled.[19] A claimant must prove that she is unable to return to her past relevant work either as she performed that work or as that work is generally performed in the national economy.[20] In the present case, Plaintiff has failed to carry her burden of proof.

         Medical opinions are to be weighed by the process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). Generally, an opinion from a medical source who has examined a claimant is given more weight than that from a source who has not performed an examination, [21] and an opinion from a medical source who regularly treats the claimant is afforded more weight than that from a source who has examined the claimant but does not have an ongoing treatment relationship.[22] In other words, “[t]he regulations provide progressively more rigorous tests for weighing opinions as the ties between the source of the opinion and the individual become weaker.”[23] Opinions from nontreating sources are not assessed for “controlling weight.” Instead, these opinions are weighed ...


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