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Melton v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sandra Kaye Melton brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

         On February 20, 2018, the magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (Doc. No. 20), recommending that the decision of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) be affirmed and that the plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 15) be denied. The plaintiff has filed timely Objections (Doc. No. 21), to which the SSA has responded (Doc. No. 22). For the reasons discussed herein, the court will overrule the Objections, accept and adopt the R&R, deny the plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record, and affirm the SSA's decision.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff Sandra Kaye Melton filed applications for DIB and SSI on November 1, 2012, alleging disability beginning on June 30, 2005 due to arthritis, stomach problems, hearing problems, and heart problems. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 265, [2] Doc. No. 12.) These applications were denied initially (AR 87-88) and on reconsideration (AR 120-21). After a hearing, ALJ James Dixon issued an unfavorable decision on March 26, 2015. (AR 16-29.) The ALJ also denied Melton's request to amend her alleged onset date to January 1, 2013 as moot, since he found that Melton was not disabled for any of the period from June 30, 2005 to the date of the decision. (AR 21, 41.)

         The ALJ accepted as a factual matter that Melton suffered from severe impairments, including arthritis[3] and hearing loss, but that these impairments did meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 24-25.) The ALJ found that Melton had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with some limitations and, more specifically, that she had the ability to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, to stand or walk six to eight hours in an eight-hour workday, to frequently climb ramps and stairs, bend, stoop, kneel, squat, crouch, and crawl, and to occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. (AR 25.) Although the plaintiff had worked part-time for a number of years and was still working part-time as of the date of the hearing, the ALJ found that the work did not constitute substantial gainful employment and, therefore, that the plaintiff had no past relevant work. Nonetheless, based on the RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) at the hearing, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Melton was able to perform other work that existed in the national economy, including the jobs of hand packer, machine cleaner, and laundry laborer, and, therefore, that she was not disabled. (AR 28.)

         The Appeals Council denied review on March 4, 2016 (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final Agency decision.

         The plaintiff filed her Complaint initiating this action on May 5, 2016. (Doc. No. 1.) The SSA filed a timely Answer (Doc. No. 11), denying liability, and a complete copy of the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 12). On October 5, 2016, the plaintiff filed her Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record and supporting Brief (Doc. Nos. 15. 16), which the SSA opposed (Doc. No. 18). On February 20, 2018, the magistrate judge issued her R&R (Doc. No. 20), recommending that the plaintiff's motion be denied and that the SSA's decision be affirmed.

         The plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R (Doc. No. 21); the SSA has filed a Response in opposition to the Objections (Doc. No. 22).

         II. Standard of Review

         When a magistrate judge issues a report and recommendation regarding a dispositive pretrial matter, the district court must review de novo any portion of the report and recommendation to which a proper objection is made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(1)(C); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); United States v. Curtis, 237 F.3d 598, 603 (6th Cir. 2001); Massey v. City of Ferndale, 7 F.3d 506, 510 (6th Cir. 1993). Objections must be specific; a general objection to the R&R is not sufficient and may result in waiver of further review. Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373, 380 (6th Cir. 1995). In conducting its review of the objections, the district court “may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         In Social Security cases under Title II or Title XIV, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and, as such, entitled to benefits. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c), 405(h). The court's review of the decision of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) is limited to a determination of whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence. Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) (2012) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”). The substantial evidence standard is met if a “reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). “The substantial evidence standard . . . presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts.” Blakley, 581 F.3d at 406 (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). “Therefore, if substantial evidence supports an ALJ's decision, the court defers to that finding, ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)).

         III. Factual Background

         Because the ALJ did not provide a complete summary of the evidence in the record in the R&R, the court incorporates here that portion of the statement of facts set forth in the plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record that is relevant to the plaintiff's Objections:

Melton was born in 1963, making her 41 years old at the original alleged onset date, 49 years old at the filing date and the amended onset date, and 51 years old at the date of the ALJ's decision. T 21, 27, 29, 243. Melton reported obtaining her GED with a history of special education when in ...

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