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Pierce v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville Division

May 10, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge under the standing orders of the Court and 28 U.S.C. § 636 for a report and recommendation. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits application under the Social Security Act was denied after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). This action is for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision per 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Each party filed a dispositive motion [Docs. 16 & 19] with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 17 & 20].


         A review of the Commissioner's findings is narrow. The Court is confined to determining (1) whether substantial evidence supported the factual findings of the ALJ and (2) whether the Commissioner conformed to the relevant legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” is evidence that is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the challenged conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be enough to justify, if the trial were to a jury, a refusal to direct a verdict when the conclusion sought to be drawn is one of fact. LeMaster v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 802 F.2d 839, 841 (6th Cir. 1986). A Court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). Even if the Court were to resolve factual issues differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if substantial evidence supports it. Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human Services, 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). But, a decision supported by substantial evidence “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.” Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007). The Court may consider any record evidence regardless of whether the ALJ cited it. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d. 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001).

         A claimant must be under a “disability” as defined by the Act to be eligible for benefits. “Disability” includes physical and mental impairments that are “medically determinable” and so severe as to prevent the claimant from (1) performing her past job and (2) engaging in “substantial gainful activity” available in the regional or national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         A five-step sequential evaluation is used in disability determinations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Review ends with a dispositive finding at any step. See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). The complete review poses five questions:

1. Has the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the claimant suffer from one or more severe impairments?
3. Do the claimant's severe impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments (the “Listings”), 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, Appendix 1?
4. Considering the claimant's [Residual Functional Capacity], can he or she perform his or her past relevant work?
5. Assuming the claimant can no longer perform his or her past relevant work -- and also considering the claimant's age, education, past work experience, and RFC -- do significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform?

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         The claimant has the burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). See Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994). The Commissioner has the burden to establish the claimant's ability to work at step five. Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).


         A. Procedural History

         In her application, Kimberly Lynn Pierce (“Pierce”) alleged impairments she believed were disabling as of July 17, 2014 (Doc. 11, Transcript p. 11) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). Her claim was initially denied in May 2015 and upon reconsideration in September 2015 (Id.). The ALJ conducted a hearing on March 25, 2015; supplemental testimony was provided on June 26, 2015. Payne testified at each hearing and a vocational expert testified at the supplemental hearing (Tr. 28-43).

         The ALJ utilized the five-step analysis in evaluating the claims and found several of Payne's alleged physical and mental impairments were severe. Ultimately, the ALJ made the dispositive finding that Payne was not disabled. The findings were as follows:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019;
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 17, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.);
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with right hip pain; cardiac disease; anxiety; and depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c));
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526);
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except standing and walking four hours, sitting six hours, occasionally kneeling, balancing, stooping, crouching, and crawling, and reaching overhead bilaterally, avoiding concentrated exposure to fumes and respiratory irritants, hazards and vibrations and climbing. The claimant can perform simple routine work tasks.
6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a clerk (Dictionary of Occupational Titles #205.367.062). This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565);
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 14, 2014, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(Tr. 11-22).[1] The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review request (Tr. 1).

         B. Evidence in the Record

         The Commissioner filed a Transcript that includes records from the disability proceedings, including medical records and opinions from treating sources, an examining consultant and state agency reviewers. Pierce's brief reviews the history, particularly the medical opinion evidence [Doc. 17]. The Commissioner's brief also reviews the record [Doc. 20].

         C. Medical History

         Pierce maintains she has the severe impairments of back pain and right hip pain, heart problems, and depression and anxiety (Tr. 13, 33-37). A review of her medical history is ...

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