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Holt v. Berryhill

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

December 12, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          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 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         II. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The 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 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 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 disability criteria.

         III. Plaintiff's Vocational Characteristics

         Plaintiff 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.

         IV. Evidence in the Record

         On 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).

         She 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).

         In 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 ...

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