United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Clifton L. Corker United States Magistrate Judge
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 claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income were denied administratively by Defendant Commissioner
following a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
[“ALJ”]. This is an action for judicial review of
that final decision of the Commissioner. The plaintiff has
filed a pro se Complaint [Doc. 2], asking the Court
to award her benefits, and Defendant Commissioner has filed a
Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 14]. Plaintiff has not
filed any other pleadings besides her complaint.
Standard of Review
sole function of this Court in making this review is to
determine whether the findings of the Commissioner are
supported by substantial evidence in the record.
McCormick v. Secretary of Health and Human Services,
861 F.2d 998, 1001 (6th Cir. 1988).
“Substantial evidence” is defined as evidence
that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support
the challenged conclusion. Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389 (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.
Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission, 383 U.S. 607
(1966). 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. Secretary of Health
and Human Services, 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th
Cir. 1988). Yet, even if supported by substantial evidence,
“a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld
where the SSA 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).
Sequential Evaluation Process
applicable administrative regulations require the
Commissioner to utilize a five-step sequential evaluation
process for disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). Although a dispositive finding at any step
ends the ALJ's review, see Colvin v. Barnhart,
475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007), the complete sequential
review poses five questions:
1. Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant suffer from one or more severe
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 RFC, 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). A claimant bears the
ultimate burden of establishing disability under the Social
Security Act's definition. Key v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 109 F.3d 270, 274 (6th Cir. 1997). It is important
to note, especially in this case, that even if the ALJ finds
a severe impairment, that does not end the analysis. The ALJ
still must continue along the sequential process in order to
determine whether a particular claimant satisfies the
Plaintiff's Vocational Characteristics
was born in 1978 and was a younger person under the
applicable regulations at the time she filed her application.
She alleges that she became disabled on August 21, 2012 due
to limitations from bipolar disorder, depression, headaches,
neuropathy, back injury, stomach problems, bowel problems,
fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and breathing problems (Tr. 241,
244, 278). Her insured status expired on December 31, 2015
(Tr. 62). Accordingly, she must establish disability on or
before that date in order to be entitled to benefits. 20
C.F.R. § 404.130.
Evidence in the Record
August 21, 2012, Plaintiff injured her back doing a patient
transfer in the scope of her employment as a CNA (Tr. 684).
She went to the emergency room three days later complaining
of low-back pain (Tr. 543-46). An MRI of her lumbar spine
revealed no fractures or subluxations (Tr. 544, 547-48). In
October 2012, Dr. Paul Johnson, an orthopedist, treated
Plaintiff for low back pain. (Tr. 425). He noted that
Plaintiff stood well with good balance and could flex and
extend appropriately (Tr. 425). Another MRI of her lumbar
spine revealed no fractures, but showed a small annular tear
between L5-L5 as well as a protruding disc at the level
mildly displacing the origin of the L5 nerve root (Tr. 424).
Dr. Johnson released her to work, limiting her to lifting
objects weighing less than 10 pounds (Tr. 424).
then continued to be treated for her low-back pain by Dr.
Steve Sanders, a neurologist and Dr. Mohamed Abdelrahman,
also a neurologist. (Tr. 429-430, 502-06). Kent Sauter, M.D.,
in December 2012, performed an independent medical
examination for worker's compensation. (Tr. 436-441). He
assessed Plaintiff with chronic low-back pain from a lumbar
strain, which he concluded had been treated appropriately and
recommended no further treatment. He recommended
over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications for her
symptoms. (Tr. 441). He opined that she had no restrictions
and could return to work. (Tr. 441).
February 2013, Rob Pearse, M.S., C.F.E., conducted an
functional capacity evaluation (“FCE”) (Tr.
472-93). Because he found Plaintiff made an unreliable effort
on the FCE, he could ...