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Flarida v. Commissioner Social Security

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

March 15, 2018

PENNY G. FLARIDA, Plaintiff,

          Waverly D. Crenshaw, Chief Judge



         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 12) and AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Penny G. Flarida, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance (DI) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record (DE 12), Plaintiff's memorandum in support (DE 13), the Commissioner's response (DE 14), and the administrative record (DE 10).[1]

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff alleges her disability began on March 23, 2011, at the age of 46. (R. at 217.) She lists several physical conditions (back problems, heart problems, acid reflux, difficulties standing and walking, leg and foot cramping) and mental conditions (anxiety and depression) that limit her ability to work. (R. at 298.) Her applications for DI and SSI were denied initially in July 2012 and May 2013. (R. at 81-106, 139-142.) Her request for reconsideration was denied on September 6, 2013. (R. at 107-138, 143-144, 151-153.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 163-165.) ALJ Frank L. Gregori held a hearing, and, on April 24, 2015, determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 9-80.) On July 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-8.) Thus, ALJ Gregori's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on August 29, 2016. (DE 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 140 pages of medical records, of which Exhibits 1F through 13F were available to the ALJ at the time of the April 24, 2015 decision. (R. at 32, 370-509.) These records will be discussed in detail, as necessary, below.[2]

         C. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the February 3, 2015 hearing, when she was 50 years of age. (R. at 44-71.) As Plaintiff is expressly challenging the ALJ's credibility assessment in the instant appeal, the Court will refer to Plaintiff's testimony as necessary below. Vocational expert (VE) Chelsea R. Brown testified at the hearing, providing answers to two comprehensive hypotheticals that differed with respect to sitting and standing. (R. at 72-79 (emphasis added), 210-215.)

         D. The Administrative Decision

         On April 24, 2015 ALJ Gregori issued a decision. (R. at 9-32.) At Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 23, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. at 15.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease (DDD); osteoarthritis of the left knee; morbid obesity; depressive disorder; and panic disorder without agoraphobia. (R. at 15.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 15-17.) Between Steps 3 and 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

. . . to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) that is limited to lifting and carrying no more than twenty pounds occasionally; lifting and/or carrying no more than ten pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; sitting for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; needing to alternate between sitting and standing every thirty minutes; pushing and/or pulling both hand controls and foot controls bilaterally with no limitations other than the aforementioned weight restrictions for lifting and carrying [exertional limitations]; and never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but occasionally engaging in all other postural activities, including climbing stairs and ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling [postural limitations]. The claimant has no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. Mentally, the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out only simple, detailed, multi-step instructions; maintain adequate concentration, persistence, and pace for simple and detailed tasks without significant difficulty with appropriate work breaks; relate appropriately to the general public, peers, and supervisors; and adapt to infrequent changes that are gradually introduced in the work environment.

(R. at 17-25 (emphases added).) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 25.) At Step 5, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 25-26.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 23, 2011 through the date of the decision. (R. at 26.)

         E. Standard of Review

         The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. at 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. at 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir.

         1994)). “Substantial evidence supports a decision if ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion' backs it up.” Biestek v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 880 F.3d 778, 783 (6th Cir. 2017) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court does “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (“It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.”); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 399 (“We therefore are presented with the not uncommon situation of conflicting medical evidence. The trier of fact has the duty to resolve that conflict.”). Furthermore, the claimant “has the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability.” Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”); see also Biestek, 880 F.3d at 783 (“[A] decision supported by substantial evidence must stand, even if we might decide the question differently based on the same evidence.”) (citing Wright-Hines v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 597 F.3d 392, 395 (6th Cir. 2010)). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘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.'” Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         F. Analysis

         Plaintiff contends that she cannot perform “the walking and standing requirements of light work[, ]” and challenges these exertional limitations by pointing to her testimony and the opinions of Dr. Roy Johnson, Dr. Gary Turner, and Dr. Larry Turner. (DE 13 at 5-6.)

         1. Opinion evidence

         The Social Security Administration (SSA) will evaluate every medical opinion it receives. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (“How we weigh medical opinions.”). “Unless we give a treating source's medical opinion controlling weight under paragraph (c)(2) of this section, we consider all of the following factors in deciding the weight we give to any medical opinion[:]” (1) examining relationship; (2) treatment relationship; (3) supportability; (4) consistency; (5) specialization; and (6) other factors. Id. See also SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996), Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004). However, while an ALJ must “always give good reasons in [the ALJ's] notice of determination or decision for the weight [the ALJ] give[s] your treating source's opinion, ” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2), and “must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight, ” Friend v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 09-3889, 375 Fed.Appx. 543, 550 (6th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (internal quotation omitted), there is no per se rule that requires a written articulation of each of the six regulatory or “Wilson factors” listed in ...

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