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Rhodes v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

April 17, 2018

NENA C. RHODES, Plaintiff,



         Before the Court is plaintiff Nena C. Rhodes's appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1391 et seq. (ECF No. 1.) The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 9.) For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         Rhodes filed claims for disability insurance benefits and SSI on August 30, 2012, with an alleged onset date of August 6, 2012. (R. 14.) Rhodes's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. At Rhodes's request, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing and issued a written decision. (R. 11-57.)

         The ALJ found that Rhodes had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, seizure disorder, osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, history of pulmonary embolus, depression and anxiety. (R. 16.) However, the ALJ determined that Rhodes did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in or medically equal to one of the listed impairments contained within 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (R. 16-17.) Specifically, the ALJ stated that he considered Rhodes's degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis under listings 1.02 and 1.04 and, although not directly addressed by the listings, her carpal tunnel syndrome under listing 1.02. (R. 17.) The ALJ stated that there was no evidence that Rhodes was unable to ambulate effectively as defined in 1.00B2b or that she was unable to perform fine and gross movements effectively as defined in 1.00B2c. (Id.) The ALJ considered Rhodes's seizure disorder under listings 11.02 and 11.03, yet noted that the record indicated that her seizures were responsive to medication. (Id.) Likewise, the ALJ considered whether Rhodes's obesity, independently or in concert with another impairment, met or equaled any of the listed impairments and concluded it did not. (Id.) The ALJ considered Rhodes's mental impairments singularly and in combination, and found they did not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06. (Id.) The ALJ determined that the “paragraph B” criteria were not satisfied because Rhodes had only mild restrictions in daily living, moderate difficulties in social functions, moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (Id.) The ALJ also determined that the evidence failed to satisfy the “paragraph C” criteria. (Id.)

         The ALJ next determined that Rhodes retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can engage in frequent handing and grasping with the left upper extremity; no work at unprotected heights or around unguarded moving machinery; no driving; no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes or high humidity; no concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants; can understand, remember, and carryout simple, routine, repetitive and detailed, but not executive level tasks; can handle infrequent workplace changes; and can have occasional interaction with the public.

(R. 18.) To support this conclusion the ALJ considered Rhodes's testimony that she experiences seizures on a weekly basis after which she must rest for a day or so; that she has a collapsed lung and difficulty breathing, walking, and bending; and that she can exert herself for three to five minutes before she starts having problems breathing. (Id.) The ALJ determined that Rhodes's description of the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms was not entirely credible. Specifically, the ALJ considered Rhodes's obesity as required by SSR 02-1p. (Id.) A consultative examiner, Dr. Gary McBride, opined in November 2012 that Rhodes's obesity did not adversely affect her ability to walk, twist, turn, bend, or lift, and a neurologic exam at that time showed negative straight leg raise tests and no other focal or sensory deficits. (R. 21.) The ALJ noted that Rhodes's seizures were well controlled by her prescription medications, and also showed a normal MRI and EKG in an April 2013 examination. (R. 19.) The ALJ also observed that, while Rhodes spent seven days in the hospital in November 2011 for pulmonary embolus, she has not had recurrent instances of pulmonary embolism, although she was subsequently treated for acute bronchitis with exacerbation in December 2013. (R. 20.) A November 2012 examination revealed that Rhodes suffered no complications from osteoarthritis, and her back pain was stable. (R. 21.) At a December 2013 examination, Rhodes reported 80% improvement in her symptoms with injections, and moderate relief from pain with medications. (Id.) At an examination by Dr. John Woods in June 2014, Rhodes demonstrated numerous physical impairments which the ALJ did not fully credit because “the evidence fails to support the presence of many of these findings outside of this examination.” (R. 21-22.) The ALJ further noted it was “plausible to assume that [Rhodes] was experiencing an acute exacerbation of her symptoms on this day and that other examinations in the record provide a more accurate depiction of [Rhodes's] every day functioning.” (R. 22.) The ALJ also gave little weight to Dr. Woods's opinion that Rhodes is permanently impaired from gainful employment because that determination is reserved for the Commissioner, and because the overall evidence of the record did not support the assertion. (R. 23-24.) A psychological evaluation in October 2012 revealed some mild cognitive disorganization, but no indication of any dementing type process. (R. 22.) That examiner stated that Rhodes would likely have difficulty in relating to both co-workers and supervisors in a job-related situation; the ALJ gave little weight to this assertion because the record did not indicate that Rhodes ever had problems interacting with others at work in the past. (Id.) Rather, the ALJ noted that the record showed Rhodes maintained successful relationships with family members, cooperated with the psychological examiners, could go to doctor visits and the grocery store without issue, and adopted a child during the period in question. (R. 24.) Rhodes stated her depression had improved at an examination in May 2013. (R. 22.) In November 2013, she stated that her symptoms had worsened, however the ALJ noted the increase was likely attributable to relationship issues at home and the recent adoption of an infant child into the household. (R. 22-23.) The ALJ thus determined that claimant's impairments warranted additional limitations not assessed by state agency medical consultants, but less limitations than alleged by the claimants. Specifically, the ALJ credited Rhodes's noted left wrist abnormalities with a restriction to frequent handling and grasping with the left upper extremity, and totally restricted her from driving based on her seizure history. (R. 23.) The ALJ found that given her limitations Rhodes was unable to perform any past relevant work as an assembler, hand packager, and inspector. (R. 24.)

         At Step Five, the ALJ found that, considering Rhodes's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. (R. 25.) The ALJ noted that Rhodes's ability to perform the full range of light work was impeded by additional limitations, and thus the Medical-Vocational Guidelines could only be used as a framework. (Id.) The ALJ relied on a vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony that given all of Rhodes's limitations, she could nonetheless perform work as a ticketer, sorter, and inspector. (Id.) Pursuant to SSR 00-4p, the ALJ determined that the VE testimony was consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (Id.) The ALJ thus determined that Rhodes was not disabled. (R. 26.) The Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Rhodes's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.)

         Rhodes filed the instant action on September 15, 2015. (ECF No. 1.) Rhodes argues that the ALJ failed to give the correct weight to the opinions of Dr. McBride and Dr. Woods and that, if properly credited, such opinions would compel a finding of disabled under Listing 11.02. (Id. at 13.) Rhodes also argues that the ALJ erroneously used a boilerplate statement of credibility in assessing Rhodes's testimony, instead of the standard mandated by SSR 96-7p. (Id. at 16.) Rhodes asserts that the ALJ did not explain why her “clearly documented seizure disorder would not meet or medically equal Listing 11.02.” (Id. at 18.) Finally, Rhodes argues that the ALJ's denial is not supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 19.) Thus, Rhodes requests that the matter be reversed and benefits awarded, or remanded for further proceedings. (Id. at 20.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he or she was a party. “The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to whether there is substantial evidence to support the decision and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal criteria in making the decision. Id.; Winn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 615 Fed.Appx. 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2015); Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011); Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance, and is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court must examine the evidence in the record as a whole and “must ‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Abbott v. Sullivan,905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Garner v. Heckler,745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)). If substantial evidence is found to support the Commissioner's decision, however, the court must affirm that decision and “may not even inquire whether the record could support a decision the other way.” Barker v. Shalala,40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, the court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Bass v. McMahon,499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). Rather, the Commissioner, not the court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility ...

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