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Simpkins v. Social Security, Commissioner Of

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

March 28, 2018

CHARLES SIMPKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CLIFTON L. CORKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with the consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 13] for disposition and entry of a final judgment. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) 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). Each party filed a dispositive motion [Docs. 18 & 20] with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 19 & 21].

         I. APPLICABLE LAW - STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 the Court were to resolve factual issues differently, the Commissioner's 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). The Court may consider any evidence in the record regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d. 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001).

         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).

         The claimant has the burden to establish an 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).

         II. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL OVERVIEW

         A. Procedural History

         Charles T. Simpkins (“Simpkins”) filed DIB and SSI applications in April 2012. He alleged an onset date of June 2, 2013, and had insured status through December 31, 2014. (Doc. 9, Transcript p. 17) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). He alleged multiple impairments he believed to be disabling, including back, shoulder and hand conditions. Simpkins' claims were initially denied in January 2014 and upon reconsideration in May 2014. (Tr. 17). An ALJ conducted a hearing in July 2015 and a supplemental hearing in December 2015. Brief testimony was provided at the first hearing; the bulk of the testimony was supplied at the supplemental hearing by Simpkins and a vocational expert. (Tr. 17, 549-60).

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims. The ALJ found Simpkins had severe medical impairments, but was not disabled. The findings were:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 2, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.);
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and thoracic spine; degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder; neck disorder; arthritis; history of left wrist fracture; ...

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