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Hastings v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

March 28, 2018




         Before the court is plaintiff Thomas W. Hastings's appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1](“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. On July 20, 2016, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 34.) This case was subsequently reassigned to the undersigned on March 13, 2017. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.


         On October 5, 2010, Hastings filed for disability benefits under Title II of the Act. (R. at 70, 169-73.) Hastings initially alleged disability beginning March 13, 2013, due to HNP cervical, HNP Lumbar, a fractured clavicle, bone spurs, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.[2] (R. at 70.) Hastings's last date insured was December 31, 2014. (Id.) The SSA denied this application initially and upon reconsideration. (R. at 80, 94.) At Hastings's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on November 14, 2012. (R. at 35.) On November 21, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Hastings's request for benefits after finding that he was not under a disability because he retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy. (R. at 16-32.) On May 7, 2014, the SSA's Appeals Council denied Hastings's request for review. (R. at 8.) Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision for the Commissioner. (Id.) Subsequently, on March 9, 2015, Hastings filed the instant action in the Central District of California. (ECF No. 1.) The matter was transferred to this court on April 29, 2016. (ECF Nos. 21, 22.) Hastings argues that (1) the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinions of the medical sources in the record, and (2) the ALJ erred by finding that Hastings's description of the severity of his condition was not entirely credible. (ECF No. 35.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which she or he was a party. “The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to whether there is substantial evidence to support the decision and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal criteria in making the decision. Id.; Burton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 690 Fed.Appx. 398, 400 (6th Cir. 2017); Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011); Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance, and is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court must examine the evidence in the record as a whole and “must ‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)). If substantial evidence is found to support the Commissioner's decision, however, the court must affirm that decision and “may not even inquire whether the record could support a decision the other way.” Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, the court may “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). The Commissioner, not the court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence and to resolve material conflicts in the testimony. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997); Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); Prater v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 114CV01221STATMP, 2017 WL 2929479, at *1 (W.D. Tenn. July 10, 2017).

         B. The Five-Step Analysis

         The Act defines disability as 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). Additionally, section 423(d)(2) of the Act states,

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), “work which exists in the national economy” means work which exists in significant No. either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

         Under the Act, the claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits. Oliver v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 415 F. App'x 681, 682 (6th Cir. 2011). The initial burden is on the claimants to prove they have a disability as defined by the Act. Siebert v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 105 F. App'x 744, 746 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Walters, 127 F.3d at 529); see also Born v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 923 F.2d 1168, 1173 (6th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is able to do so, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background. Born, 923 F.2d at 1173; see also Griffith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F. App'x 555, 559 (6th Cir. 2014).

         Entitlement to social security benefits is determined by a five-step sequential analysis set forth in the Social Security Regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the claimant must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, a finding must be made that the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). In the third step, the ALJ determines whether the impairment meets or equals the severity criteria set forth in the Listing of Impairments contained in the Social Security Regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. If the impairment satisfies the criteria for a listed impairment, the claimant is considered to be disabled. On the other hand, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must undertake the fourth step in the analysis and determine whether the claimant has the RFC to return to any past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e). If the ALJ determines that the claimant can return to past relevant work, then a finding of not disabled must be entered. Id. But if the ALJ finds the claimant unable to perform past relevant work, then at the fifth step the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work existing in significant No. in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g). Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         C. Assessment of Dr. Reddy's Opinion

         Hastings argues the ALJ should have adopted Dr. Reddy's opinion that he could not lift or carry more than ten pounds. On March 13, 2010, Hastings had an accident on his dirt bike and went to an emergency room where he learned that he had fractured his right clavicle. (R. at 254-55.) Over the next year and a half, Hastings underwent two surgeries on his clavicle and visited a No. of doctors, complaining of ongoing pain in his right shoulder, neck, back, left hip, and left knee. (R. at 260, 284, 289, 306-07, 320.) On April 25, 2011, shortly after his second surgery, Hastings received a consultative examination from Terrance Flanagan, M.D. (R. at 267.) During this exam Hastings described all of his symptoms to Dr. Flanagan and reported that his neck and back pains worsened with sitting, standing, walking, bending, and lifting. (R. at 268.) Hastings also described his right shoulder pain as exacerbated by reaching, lifting, or carrying. (Id.) Dr. Flanagan observed that Hastings could sit, stand, rise from a chair, and walk without difficulty. (R. at 269.) His examination of Hastings's neck was normal, but when examining Hastings's back Dr. Flanagan observed tenderness around his lumbar area and pain with trunk rotation. (Id.) Hastings's forward flexion was 60° with indications of pain. (Id.) His right shoulder had a flexion of 20°, internal rotation of 50°, and external rotation of 20°. (R. at 270.) Dr. Flanagan also observed that Hastings was guarding his right shoulder, leaving the “true range of motion” uncertain. (Id.) Dr. Flanagan opined that, assuming the clavicle healed properly, Hastings could lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently with his right arm and had no other limitations. (R. at 272.)

         In May of 2011, x-rays of Hastings's cervical spine and left knee showed normal results. (R. at 328, 332-34.) An x-ray of his right shoulder also came back as normal. (R. at 336.) However, the x-ray of his lumbar spine revealed severe degenerative osteoarthritic changes with narrowing of the L5-S1 and L4-L5 intervertebral disc spaces, anterior osteophytic spurring, and sclerosis in the left sacroiliac joint. (R. at 335.)

         A state medical consultant considered Hastings's medical records and opined on June 29, 2011, that Hastings could occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds, frequently lift and carry ten pounds, and had additional limitations on his ability to stand and reach. (R. at 77-78.) On November 4, 2011, after reviewing updates to Hastings's medical record, including the May ...

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