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Jarrett v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

February 14, 2018




         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 him benefits, and Defendant Commissioner has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 10]. Plaintiff has not filed any other pleadings besides his 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 (6thCir. 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). The burden shifts to the Commissioner with respect to the fifth step if the claimant satisfies the first four steps of the process. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003).

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff was born in 1969 and was a younger person under the applicable regulations at the time he filed his application (Tr. 268). Plaintiff's prior relevant work experience includes cleaner (medium, unskilled, DOT 381.687-018), car salesman (light, skilled, 273.353-010), and casino dealer (light, skilled, 343.464-010) (Tr. 73, 275, 342). He alleges that he became disabled on February 1, 2009, due to limitations from multiple herniated discs causing back pain, a dislocated rotator cuff, sciatica in both legs, nerve pain, fibromyalgia, traumatic head injuries, PTSD, poor reflexes, depression, anxiety, and social disorder (Tr. 226, 273). His insured status expired on June 30, 2014 (Tr. 30-31). Accordingly, he must establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 4040.130.

         In April 2016, an ALJ conducted an evidentiary hearing in which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified (Tr. 59-79). The ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr. 126-38). The Appeals Council remanded the decision for further development of issues (Tr. 145-48). In September 2016, the ALJ again heard from Plaintiff and a VE (Tr. 39-58). Again, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits (Tr. 18-31). Plaintiff now appeals to this Court.

         IV. Evidence in the Record

         Federal courts are not in the business of making arguments for parties, even where a litigant proceeds pro se. See Kim v. Obama, 615 Fed.Appx. 516, 517 (10th Cir. 2015) (“[W]e won't act as [a pro se plaintiff's] advocate by formulating arguments or scouring the record on his behalf.”). That notwithstanding, as Plaintiff has not filed any motions in this case, the Court will review the evidence in the record to determine whether substantial evidence exists to support the decision of the Commissioner.

         A. Plaintiff's Physical Impairments

         In 1991, Plaintiff injured his back while lifting weights while employed by the United States Navy (Tr. 397-98). While he continued to experience ongoing back pain from that injury, in August 2008, a physical examination indicated Plaintiff's strength and sensation were normal (Tr. 362-63). An MRI showed moderate degenerative disc disease with a small central disc protrusion at the L5-S1 level (Tr. 401-02). A diffuse disc bulge with a tiny broad-based protrusion was noted at ¶ 4-L5 level with bilateral facet arthropathy noted at the last two levels (Tr. 402). Plaintiff received multiple epidural blocks in 2009 and 2010 and was prescribed a TENS unit (Tr. 366-77, 468-69, 533-35, 645-46). ...

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