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Claussen v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 4, 2018





         Plaintiff Barbara Jo Claussen seeks judicial review of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's determination that she is not entitled to social security benefits for her physical and mental impairments under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Docket no. 1.) Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record and her Memorandum in Support of the Motion. (Docket nos. 9, 10.) Defendant filed a Response opposing Plaintiff's Motion. (Docket no. 11.) This case has been referred to a Magistrate Judge to dispose or recommend disposition of any pretrial motions under 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Docket no. 12.) Pursuant to Administrative Order No. 24 entered on January 23, 2018, the undersigned Magistrate Judge has been assigned to this case and is authorized to hold court and perform other judicial duties in the Middle District of Tennessee under 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(a), (b), and (c). The undersigned has reviewed the pleadings and issues this Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).


         For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (docket no. 9) be DENIED, the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, and Plaintiff's Complaint (docket no. 1) be DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 17, 2012, alleging that she has been disabled since October 1, 2011, due to arthritis and degenerative disc disease in her back and neck; and scoliosis, stenosis, and facet syndrome in her back. (TR 67, 140-46, 161.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims initially on January 3, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on May 8, 2013, after which Plaintiff requested a de novo hearing. (TR 59-78, 96-97.) On August 11, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with a representative and testified at the hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Andrea L. Wirth. (TR 27-58.) The ALJ subsequently issued an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's claims on October 14, 2015, and the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (TR 1-3, 11-20.) Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review and filed a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record, which is currently before the Court.


         Plaintiff (docket no. 10 at 2-13) and the ALJ (TR 16-20) have set forth detailed, factual summaries of Plaintiff's medical record and the hearing testimony. Defendant adopts the ALJ's recitation of the facts. (Docket no. 11 at 2-3.) Having conducted an independent review of Plaintiff's medical record and the hearing transcript, the undersigned finds that there are no material inconsistencies among these recitations of the record. Therefore, in lieu of re- summarizing this information, the undersigned will incorporate the above-cited factual recitations by reference and will also make references and citations to the record as necessary to address the parties' arguments throughout this Report and Recommendation.


         The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from the alleged onset date of October 1, 2011 through the date last insured of September 30, 2014. (TR 13.) Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine, status post C6-7 discectomy and fusion in 1995; scoliosis; lumbar and cervical spondylolisthesis; lumbar degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis; angina; and mixed connective tissue disease. (TR 13-15.) Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (TR 15.) The ALJ then found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity (RFC):

Claimant had the residual functional capacity to lift and carry ten pounds occasionally, stand or walk two hours total in an eight-hour day and sit eight hours in an eight-hour day. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop and reach above shoulder level bilaterally. She should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, kneel, crouch or crawl.

(TR 15-19.) Subsequently, in reliance on the vocational expert's (VE's) testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a surgical coordinator. (TR 19-20.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time from October 1, 2011, through the date last insured of September 30, 2014. (TR 11, 20.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decisions. Judicial review of the Commissioner's decisions is limited to determining whether his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether he employed the proper legal standards. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Walters v. Comm'r, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Walters, 127 F.3d at 528. It is not the function of this Court to try cases de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).

         In determining the existence of substantial evidence, the court must examine the administrative record as a whole. See Kirk v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 536 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983), and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r, 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc) (noting that the substantial evidence standard “presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts”). “But ‘[a]n ALJ's failure to follow agency rules and regulations denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record.'” Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011)).

         B. Framework for Social Security Determinations

         Plaintiff's Social Security disability determination was made in accordance with a five-step sequential analysis. In the first ...

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