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Lee v. Berryhill

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

February 15, 2018

JAMES E. LEE, 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 and Supplemental Security Income applications under the Social Security Act were 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). Each party has filed a dispositive motion [Docs. 14 & 16] with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 15 & 17].

         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 & Human 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 a court were to resolve factual issues differently, the 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).

         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 his 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 & 416.920. 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) & 416.920(a)(4).

         A 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

         James E. Lee (“Lee”) filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income in April 2013, alleging an onset date of April 8, 2012. (Doc. 8, Transcript pp. 12) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). Lee's claims were denied on March 19, 2014. (Tr. 12). The claims were again denied upon reconsideration in July 2014. (Id.). An ALJ conducted an evidentiary hearing on September 25, 2016. Lee and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 33-55).

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims. He found Lee had severe medical impairments, (Tr. 15), but ...


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