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Meeks v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

April 16, 2018

MARTHA MEEKS, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Martha Meeks (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Each party has moved for judgment [Docs. 18 & 24] and filed supporting briefs [Docs. 19 & 25]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below, (1) Plaintiff's motion for judgment based on the administrative record [Doc. 18] will be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 24] will be GRANTED; and the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on June 7, 2012, and for SSI on May 1, 2013, alleging disability beginning December 27, 2010 (Tr.[1] 70, 160). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration at the agency level. After a hearing was held on October 15, 2014, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found on November 10, 2014, that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act (Tr. 67-78). On June 9, 2015, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ because “the hearing decision in the instant case [did] not contain a complete exhibit list.” (Tr. 85-86). The Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to “offer the claimant an opportunity for a hearing, address the evidence which was submitted with the request for review, take any further action needed to complete the administrative record and issue a new decision.” (Tr. 86). On remand, the ALJ properly assembled the administrative record, and on November 17, 2015, the ALJ again concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act (Tr. 11-25). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a second review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner (Tr. 6-8). Plaintiff timely filed the instant action [Doc. 1].


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born January 9, 1969, which made her a “younger individual, ” on the alleged onset date (Tr. 23). Plaintiff has a high school education and is able to communicate in English (Tr. 23). Plaintiff has past relevant work as a psychiatric aide, a certified nursing assistance, a daycare worker, and a waitress (Tr. 23).

         B. Medical Records

         In her Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), generalized depression, gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), and a spastic colon (Tr. 206). Plaintiff [Doc. 19 at Page ID # 54-57] and the ALJ (Tr. 19-23) each set forth a detailed, factual recitation with regard to Plaintiff's medical record, vocational record, and the hearing testimony. Defendant generally adopts the statement of facts set forth by the ALJ, but includes citation to the record throughout her argument [Doc. 25 at Page ID # 75-86]. There is no need to summarize the medical records herein, but the relevant records have been reviewed and considered.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         The first administrative hearing in this case took place on October 15, 2014, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified (Tr. 1081-114). On October 14, 2015, following remand from the Appeals Council, a second administrative hearing took place, at which Plaintiff and a different VE testified (Tr. 1115-36). The Court has reviewed the testimony from both hearings.


         A. Eligibility

         “The Social Security Act defines a 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.'” Schmiedebusch v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 536 Fed.Appx. 637, 646 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)); see also Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 Fed.Appx. 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant is disabled “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.” Parks, 413 Fed.Appx. at 862 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The SSA determines eligibility for disability benefits by following a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The five-step process provides:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities-the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled.

Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). The claimant bears the burden to show the extent of his impairments, but at step five, the Commissioner bears the burden to show that, notwithstanding those impairments, there are jobs the claimant is capable of performing. See Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 512-13 (6th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         B. The ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through September 30, 2015[2] (Tr. 16). At step one of the sequential process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, December 27, 2010 (Tr. 16). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, histrionic personality disorder, social anxiety, status post possible mild remote cardiovascular infarction, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 17). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 17).

         Next, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] would need simple, routine and repetitive work; few and gradually introduced changes in the workplace; no interaction with the general public and interaction with supervisors and coworkers should be no more than on an occasional basis (superficial interaction); and the work should be performed in a well-spaced work environment; handling and fingering would be limited to frequent.

(Tr. 19). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr.23). At step five, however, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy such as hand packager, garment folder, and final assembler (Tr. 23-24). These findings led to the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 24-25).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts this matter should be reversed and/or remanded under sentence four for several reasons: (1) the “ALJ's residual functional capacity finding is not supported by substantial evidence, ” (2) the “decision omits substantial and material evidence and fails to adequately explain the ALJ's reasoning, ” and (3) the “ALJ improperly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility.” [Doc. 19 at Page ID # 57-62]. The Commissioner counters that the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by ...

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