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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 26, 2018

KIANA LAGAYLE SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Aleta A. Trauger District Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD (DE 12) AND REMAND TO THE COMMISSIONER

          ANTHONY P. PATTI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. RECOMMENDATION:

         For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court GRANT Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record (DE 12), REVERSE the Commissioner's decision, and REMAND this case to the Commissioner and the ALJ under Sentence Four of § 405(g) for further consideration consistent with the report below.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Kiana Lagayle Smith, 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 social security disability insurance (DI) benefits 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 and brief in support (DEs 12, 13), the Commissioner's response to Plaintiff's motion (DE 14), Plaintiff's reply brief (DE 15), and the administrative record (DE 10).

         A. Background

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DI and SSI benefits on January 4, 2013, alleging that she has been disabled since September 10, 2011. (R. at 236-46.) She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to February 6, 2012. (R. at 41.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on May 17, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 9, 2013, and she sought a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 9-11, 133-34, 177-78, 182-85, 191-94.) ALJ Elizabeth P. Neuhoff held a hearing on November 8, 2014, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. at 35-72.) The ALJ considered all of the evidence and, on February 5, 2015, determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 12-29.) On April 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Thus, ALJ Neuhoff's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action on June 30, 2016. (DE 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 635 pages of medical records spanning the period from March 11, 2010 through September 19, 2014, including: (1) a February 8, 2013 Medical Source Statement by physician's assistant Kelly Smart; (2) an April 27, 2013 opinion by consulting examiner, Dr. Mark S. Josovitz; and (3) a July 14, 2014 opinion by Plaintiff's treating rheumatologist, Dr. Mohammad F. Ali. (R. at 41, 350-985.) The administrative record also contains State agency medical consultants' assessments (physical and mental) dated May 15, 2013 and July 8, 2013. (R. at 97-132, 135-76.) These records will be discussed in detail, as necessary, below.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the November 18, 2014 hearing before ALJ Neuhoff. (R. at 42-62, 60-70.) Vocational expert Dana M. Stoller also provided testimony. (R. at 62-68.) The hearing testimony will be cited as necessary below.

         D. The Administrative Decision

         On February 5, 2015, ALJ Neuhoff issued an “unfavorable” decision. At Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 6, 2012, the amended alleged onset date. (R. at 18.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: chronic degenerative changes in the left knee; degenerative changes in the left hip; rheumatoid arthritis; bipolar disorder; and depression. (R. at 18.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 19-21.) Prior to Step 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to:

perform sedentary work … that is limited to lifting or carrying twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; standing or walking one-and-a-half hours total in an eight-hour workday; sitting for more than six hours total in an eight-hour workday; occasionally reaching with the right upper extremity; occasionally pushing and pulling with the left upper extremity; occasionally climbing ramps and stairs but never climbing ladders or scaffolds; never crouching, crawling or kneeling; occasionally balancing and stooping; frequently handling with the bilateral upper extremities; and avoiding temperature extremes and hazards such as unprotected heights or moving machinery. Mentally, the claimant is able to understand, remember, and perform simple tasks only and she is able to maintain attention and concentration adequately for those tasks. She can interact appropriately with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public but contact with the general public should be occasional only. She is able to adapt to infrequent and gradual changes within the workplace.

(R. at 21-27.) At Step 4, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. at 27.) At Step 5, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 28.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since February 6, 2012, the amended alleged onset date, through the date of the decision. (R. at 29.)

         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

         In her motion for judgment on the administrative record, Plaintiff asserts three statements of error. First, she contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider and weigh the opinion evidence from her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Mohammad F. Ali. Second, she argues that the ALJ failed to consider and weigh the opinion of the consulting examining physician, Dr. Mark Josovitz. And third, she asserts that the ALJ failed to provide limitations regarding concentration, persistence and pace in the RFC to account for Plaintiff's “moderate” limitations in this area. (DE 13.) The Commissioner opposes Plaintiff's motion, asserting that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision. (DE 14.) Because I find that the ALJ ...


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