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Young v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 30, 2018

JONATHAN A. YOUNG, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., District Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO GRANT PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD (DE 18) AND REMAND TO THE COMMISSIONER

          Anthony P. Patti, 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 18) 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, Jonathan A. Young, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his 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 18, 19), the Commissioner's response to Plaintiff's motion (DE 23), Plaintiff's reply brief (DE 25), and the administrative record (DE 16).

         A. Background

         Plaintiff filed his applications for DI and SSI benefits on November 4, 2013, alleging that he has been disabled since January 15, 2013, at age 44. (R. at 187-201.) Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on April 24, 2014, and upon reconsideration on July 11, 2014, and he sought a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 51-108, 121-26.) ALJ Troy M. Patterson held a hearing on September 22, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by a non-attorney representative. (R. at 29-50.) The ALJ considered the evidence and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 8-28.) On November 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Thus, ALJ Patterson's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action on February 2, 2017. (DE 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         Plaintiff's combined medical records span the period from March 19, 2012 through November 25, 2015, and generally include complaints of back, neck and shoulder pain, anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. (R. at 248-933.) The 649 pages of medical records are mostly comprised of hospital and treatment records from several different health care providers, diagnostic testing, as well as consultative physical and mental examinations. These records will be discussed as necessary below.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the September 22, 2015 hearing before ALJ Patterson. (R. at 33-46.) Vocational expert Chelsea Brown also provided testimony. (R. at 47-49.) The hearing testimony will be cited as necessary below.

         D. The Administrative Decision

         On November 4, 2015, ALJ Patterson 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 January 15, 2013, the alleged onset date. (R. at 13.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status post bariatric surgery; residual effects of motor vehicle accident; anxiety; and, depression. (R. at 13-15.) 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 15-16.) Prior to Step 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to:

perform light work … except he can frequently perform postural activities but only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. He is limited to performing simple routine tasks. He can only have occasional interaction with coworkers, the public, and supervisors, and he cannot perform production rate pace work.

(R. at 16-20.) At Step 4, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 20.) 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 20-21.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 15, 2013, through the date of the decision. (R. at 21-22.)

         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 his motion for judgment on the administrative record, Plaintiff sets forth five areas in which he asserts the ALJ committed reversible error. First, he contends that the ALJ erred in crafting Plaintiff's physical RFC by ignoring relevant evidence and failing to build an accurate and logical bridge between evidence and result. (DE 19 at 8-11.) Second, he ...


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