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Stephens v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Cookeville Division

February 28, 2018


          Honorable Aleta A. Trauger



         Plaintiff Jonathan Stephens appeals a final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income benefits (SSI) under the Social Security Act (the Act). Plaintiff has filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record, the Commissioner has responded, and the matter has been referred to this Court for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The Court finds that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is supported by substantial evidence, and thus RECOMMENDS that Stephens's motion [ECF No. 17] be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Stephens's Background and Disability Applications

         Stephens filed his applications for disability benefits in May 2013, and alleged an onset date of April 11, 2013, when he was 40 years old. [Tr. 23, 204-09, 210-14]. He has past relevant work as an industrial maintenance-electrician. [Tr. 23]. Stephens initially alleged disability due to back pain, impinging disks, diabetes, tingling and numbness in legs, severe and chronic pain, and surgeries. [Tr. 228].

         After a hearing, ALJ Elizabeth P. Neuhoff issued an unfavorable decision in April 2015. [Tr. 9-29, 30-75]. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and Stephens timely filed for judicial review. [Tr. 2-7; ECF No. 1].

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Disability Framework

         A “disability” is 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.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled by analyzing five sequential steps. First, if the applicant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” he or she will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).[1] Second, if the claimant has not had a severe impairment or a combination of such impairments for a continuous period of at least 12 months, no disability will be found.[2] [Id.] Third, if the claimant's severe impairments meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments, the claimant will be found disabled. [Id.] If the fourth step is reached, the Commissioner considers its assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), and will find the claimant not disabled if he or she can still do past relevant work. [Id.] At the final step, the Commissioner reviews the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experiences, and determines whether the claimant could adjust to other work. [Id.] The claimant bears the burden of proof throughout the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the fifth step is reached. Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Applying this framework, the ALJ concluded that Stephens was not disabled. At the first step, the ALJ found that Stephens had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. [Tr. 15]. At the second step, she found that Stephens has the severe impairments of “back disorder status post discectomy on February 12, 2014 and fusion on June 9, 2014 and peripheral neuropathy now resolved with surgery.” [Id.] Next, the ALJ concluded that none of Stephens's severe impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. [Id.]

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ found that Stephens had the RFC to perform sedentary work, [3] with the following limitations: “Lifting or carrying of five to ten pounds occasionally; avoiding of repetitive and overhead lifting; sitting without restrictions; standing and walking up to two hours total in an eight-hour workday; and no bending of more than thirty degrees at the waist.” [Tr. 15]. At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Stephens could not perform past relevant work. [Tr. 23]. With the assistance of VE testimony, the ALJ determined at step five that, based on Stephens's age, education, work experience and RFC, he could perform the positions of telephone clerk, order clerk, and inspector, for which significant jobs existed in the national economy. [Tr. 24]. As such, the ALJ concluded that Stephens had not been under a disability from April 11, 2013, through the date of her decision. [Tr. 25].

         II. ...

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