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Cochrane v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 23] for disposition and entry of a final judgment. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income applications under the Social Security Act, Titles II and XVI 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). The Commissioner has filed a motion for summary judgment [Doc. 21]. Plaintiff has filed a motion to approve disability claim, which the Court will treat as a motion for judgement on the pleadings [Doc. 17].


         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 her 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 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).


         Jimmy Dean Cochrane (“Cochrane”) filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income in April 2011. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 & 416.963. The alleged onset date was November 26, 2010. (Doc. 14, Transcript pp. 99) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). Cochrane's claims were denied on July 15, 2011. (Tr. 99). The claims were again denied upon reconsideration in January 2012. (Id.). An ALJ conducted a hearing on February 4, 2014. Cochrane and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 117-32).

         In April 2005, five years prior to his alleged onset date, Cochrane was treated for acute coronary syndrome with coronary artery disease (CAD) and had stents implanted (Tr. 452-53, 465). In February 2007, he was admitted twice to the hospital for chest pain after being arrested for being intoxicated (Tr. 480, 490). Diagnostic tests were all normal (Tr. 492, 494, 496).

         On the alleged onset date of November 26, 2010, Cochrane was admitted to Henry Medical Center for abdominal pain (Tr. 382). An echocardiogram was normal. He was discharged five days later with a prescription for an anticoagulant. (Tr. 382). A month later he returned to Henry Medical Center with right-sided weakness (Tr. 362, 364). All testing was negative and there was no evidence of any cerebrovascular accident (Tr. 362, 369, 375-79). His symptoms resolved while hospitalized. He was diagnosed with weakness secondary to alcohol withdrawal (Tr. 365).

         On June 29, 2011, Bato Amu, M.D., a State agency reviewing physician, noted that Cochrane had a history of coronary disease with stent placement, inguinal hernia repair, and splenic and renal infarctions (Tr. 409). He opined that all of these conditions were non-severe as they had resolved either while in the hospital or did not pose any impairment, restrictions or limitations.

         At the administrative hearing, the vocational expert testified Cochrane could not return to his past work. The ALJ asked a hypothetical assuming an individual who could perform light work but could only perform and maintain concentration and persistence for simple, routine and repetitive tasks (Tr. 128). The VE identified jobs such as production assembler, automatic carwash attendant, and parking lot attendant. The VE testified that those jobs exists in significant numbers in the national and regional economy (Tr. 128-29).

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims and reaching a decision. The ALJ found Cochrane had severe impairments, (Tr. 101), but was not disabled. The April 22, 2014, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2014;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 26, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR ...

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