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Scealf v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 11, 2017

TONYA R. SCEALF, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Tonya R. Scealf (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Each party moved for a judgment [Docs. 15 & 17] with supporting briefs [Docs. 16 & 18]. This matter is now ripe, and for the reasons stated below, I RECOMMEND that (1) Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED; and (3) the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.


         As reflected in the transcript of the administrative proceedings [Doc. 10 (“Tr.”)], Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on February 7, 2013, alleging disability beginning April 7, 2010. After Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, a hearing on Plaintiff's claims was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) during which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. On June 23, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act (“Act”). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1971 and had a work history that included work as a studio manager and machine operator/inspector (Tr. 27). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff was 39 years old on the alleged disability onset date, which is defined as a younger individual, had at least a high school education, and had the ability to communicate in English (Tr. 27).

         B. Medical Records

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to chronic back pain caused by an L4-5 disc protrusion, radiculopathy in the bilateral lower extremities, chronic chest pains with heart palpitations status post myocardial infarction and stenting, coronary artery disease, chronic abdominal pain, and depression. Plaintiff has voluminous medical records, but the focus of this appeal is on the records and opinion of Steven Musick, DO, at Siskin Spine and Rehabilitation, who treated Plaintiff for back pain management beginning in May 2011 after a work-related lumbar strain on April 7, 2010 (Tr. 455-89, 931-34, 1728-29).

         As contended by Plaintiff, Dr. Musick noted complaints of chronic back pain with radiation into the bilateral lower extremities and recommended physical therapy, which was initially helpful but Plaintiff was unable to attain all of the goals set at the initial consult, and she ultimately discontinued physical therapy due to other health issues (Tr. 455-89, 947-1036). Dr. Musick continued to treat Plaintiff throughout 2013 and 2014 for ongoing complaints of severe back pain, decreased range of motion, lumbar lordosis, lumbar tenderness, and radiculopathy, and his testing revealed positive right straight leg raises as well as a slow gait (Tr. 588-627, 931-34, 1037-87). Dr. Musick ordered lumbar MRIs on August 26, 2011, and September 12, 2013 (Tr. 483, 1086). On October 24, 2013, Dr. Musick completed a medical source statement opining that Plaintiff's impairment was “chronic low back pain that hinders her ability to work” (Tr. 932). He opined her impairment prevents her from being reliable in attending a full time work schedule, that she would be limited to lifting no more than ten pounds occasionally, sitting for four of eight hours, standing for one of eight hours, and walking for two of eight hours, and that she would require one to two hours of bed rest during a normal work day (Tr. 932-34). Dr. Musick provided a second similar opinion in a medical source statement dated May 4, 2015 (Tr. 1728-29).

         In addition, Plaintiff suffered a heart attack on February 7, 2013, and underwent stenting of the right coronary artery (Tr. 494-501). Plaintiff continued to experience frequent chest pain with palpitations and fatigue as well as increased depression (Tr. 584-86, 889-916, 1092-147). The ALJ summarized aspects of Plaintiff's extensive medical treatment and records, which will not be repeated here, but all germane records have been reviewed.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. The transcript of the testimony at the hearing (Tr. 35-72) has been carefully reviewed.


         A. Eligibility

         “The Social Security Act defines a disability as the ‘inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'” Schmiedebusch v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 536 F. App'x 637, 646 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)); see also Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 F. App'x 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant is disabled “‘only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'” Parks, 413 F. App'x at 862 ...

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