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Sims v. Berryhill

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

December 11, 2017

ETHEL MARIE SIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          CLIFTON L. CORKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge under the standing orders of the Court and 28 U.S.C. § 636 for a report and recommendation. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits application under the Social Security Act, Title II (the “Act”) was denied after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). This action is for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision per 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. 12]. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 19] to which Plaintiff filed a response [Doc. 21].[1]

         I. APPLICABLE LAW - STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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 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. LeMaster v. Sec'y of Health & Humans Servs., 802 F.2d 839, 841 (6th Cir. 1986). A Court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). Even if the Court were to resolve factual issues differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if substantial evidence supports it. Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human Services, 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). But, 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). The Court may consider any evidence in the record regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d. 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001).

         A claimant must be under a “disability” as defined by the Act to be eligible for benefits. “Disability” includes physical and mental impairments that are “medically determinable” and so severe as to prevent the claimant from (1) performing her 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 applies in disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Review ends with a dispositive finding at any step. 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).

         The claimant has the burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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

         Ethel Marie Sims (“Sims”) was a person of advanced age at the time of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. She alleged an onset date of August 1, 2013, and had insured status through June 30, 2015. (Doc. 29, Transcript p. 28) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). She alleged impairments she believed to be disabling.

         Sims's claims were initially denied in January 2014 and upon reconsideration in July 2014 (Tr. 28). An ALJ conducted a hearing on September 15, 2015. Sims and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified, although the VE only addressed Sims's past work. (Tr. 62-63). The ALJ followed the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims and found several of Sims's alleged impairments to be medically determinable. These conditions included diabetes mellitus, atrial fibrillation, hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity, a depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder. (Tr. 30). Ultimately, the ALJ made the dispositive finding that Sims's impairments, or a combination thereof, were not severe under step two of the analysis. This decision concluded the process and resulted in a determination Sims was not disabled.

         The findings were as follows:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2015;
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of August 1, 2013, through her date last insured of June 30, 2015 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.);
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had following medically determinable impairments: diabetes mellitus, atrial fibrillation, hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity, a depressive disorder, and ...

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