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Keele v. Berryhill

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

December 18, 2017

CINDY JO KEELE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A, BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         Plaintiff Cindy Jo Keele (“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 has filed a dispositive motion for judgment [Docs. 14 & 19] with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 17 & 20]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record [Doc. 14] will be DENIED; the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 19] will be GRANTED; and the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on April 5, 2013, alleging disability beginning July 25, 2012 (Transcript [Doc. 9] (“Tr.”) 255-68). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration and she requested a hearing. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on October 21, 2015, during which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney (Tr. 31-61). The ALJ issued a decision on November 5, 2015, finding that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act (“Act”) (Tr. 11-23). After Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request, and the ALJ's decision became the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff timely filed the instant action [Doc. 1].


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1979 and was 33 years old, which is defined as a younger individual, on her alleged onset date (Tr. 21). She has a limited education, [1] and is able to communicate in English (Tr. 21). Her past work ranged from sedentary, skilled work to medium, semiskilled work (Tr. 21).

         B. Medical Records

         In her Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to a lumbar laminectomy/discectomy following an back injury, one knee needing reconstruction surgery due to a birth defect, severe whole body arthritis/rheumatoid arthritis, whole body numbness/little to no feeling in her hands and feet, severe emotional stress, depression, overweight, sleep deprivation/apnea, a bulging disc in back with a potential to rupture, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and poor eyesight (Tr. 307). The administrative record contains extensive medical records that were summarized by the ALJ (Tr. 16-22), and need not be summarized again herein. Only the portions of Plaintiff's medical records relevant to the parties' arguments will be addressed within the respective sections of the analysis below, but the relevant records have been reviewed.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the October 21, 2015 hearing, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified (Tr. 35-60). While the transcript of the testimony at the hearing has been carefully reviewed, it is not necessary to summarize the testimony herein. As needed, portions of the testimony will be addressed within the respective sections of the analysis below.


         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 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA” or “Agency”) determines eligibility for disability benefits by following a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The five-step process provides:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities-the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled.

Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (internal citations omitted). The claimant bears the burden to show the extent of his impairments, but at step five, the Commissioner bears the burden to show that, notwithstanding those impairments, there are jobs the claimant is capable of performing. See Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 512-13 (6th Cir. 2010) (internal citations omitted).

         B. The ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step process, the ALJ made the following findings and conclusions (Tr. 16-23). After finding Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017 (Tr. 16), at step one the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 12, 2012, the alleged onset date (Tr. 16). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, bilateral knee impairments, and depression (Tr. 16). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) (Tr. 17). The ALJ next determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with some limitations (Tr. 18-20).[2] At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. 21). At step five, taking into consideration the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, and after discussing the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 2, as a framework for her decision and considering ...

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