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Sandidge v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 31, 2019




         Plaintiff Patrick Sandidge (“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 him disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Each party has moved for judgment [Docs. 15 & 18] and filed supporting briefs [Docs. 16 & 19]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below: (1) Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [Doc. 15] will be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 18] will be GRANTED; and (3) the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.


         According to the administrative record [Doc. 11 (“Tr.”)], Plaintiff filed his application for DIB on June 29, 2015, alleging disability beginning June 26, 2015. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration at the agency level. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 7, 2017. On August 29, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act at any time between the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.[1]


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born March 15, 1962, making him a “person closely approaching advanced age” when he filed his application, and a “person of advanced age” on the date of the ALJ's decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d) & (e). He graduated high school and is able to communicate in English. He has past relevant work as a lab technician and a motor assembler.

         B. Medical Records

         In his June 2015 Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to severe arthritis in both shoulders with bone degeneration in the left shoulder, degenerative disc disease (“DDD”) in his lower lumbar spine, right ankle bone spurs, and sleep apnea (Tr. 189). While there is no need to summarize the medical records herein, the relevant records have been reviewed and will be discussed as necessary below.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ on August 7, 2017, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing. The Court has carefully reviewed the transcript of the hearing (Tr. 71-90).


         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 Social Security Administration (“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 Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2020. At step one of the five-step process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's shoulder osteoarthritis and lumbar DDD were severe impairments. 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.

         Next, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except Plaintiff was limited to only frequent postural activities and no overhead reaching with either upper extremity, and he was required to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards (Tr. 36). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a lab technician. In the Dictionary of Occupational Titles[2](“DOT”), this job is classified as a skilled, light exertion job. The VE testified Plaintiff performed it at the medium exertional level. These findings led to the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act at any time between the alleged onset date and the date of the decision.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings. He argues the ALJ's assessment of his RFC is not supported by substantial evidence, because the ALJ erred in his assessment of medical opinions from Plaintiff's treating physician, and in the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's “subjective allegations.” [Doc. 16 at Page ID # 647]. He also argues the ALJ erred in finding him capable of performing the lab technician job at step four, because the record shows Plaintiff did not perform that job after 2003, and because it isn't clear Plaintiff actually was a “lab technician, ” as defined in the DOT. Last, Plaintiff makes a brief argument that the ALJ violated his duty to “fully and fairly develop the administrative record, ” because the ALJ “kept inquiring as to whether or not the Plaintiff was seeking a closed period of disability.” [Doc. 16 at Page ID # 648-49]. The Court will address each issue in turn.

         A. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the Commissioner's decision unless it rests on an incorrect legal standard or is unsupported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006) (citations omitted). The United States Supreme Court recently explained that “‘substantial evidence' is a ‘term of art, '” and “whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other settings, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (citation omitted). Rather, substantial evidence “means-and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); see also McClanahan, 474 F.3d at 833. Furthermore, the evidence must be “substantial” in light of the record as a whole, “tak[ing] into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (citations omitted).

         If there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings, they should be affirmed, even if the court might have decided facts differently, or if substantial evidence would also have supported other findings. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 782 (6th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted); Ross v. Richardson, 440 F.2d 690, 691 (6th Cir. 1971) (citation omitted). The court may not re-weigh evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Garner, 745 F.2d at 387. The substantial evidence standard allows considerable latitude to administrative decision makers because it presupposes “there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” McClanahan, 474 F.3d at 833 (quoting Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001)).

         The court may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). The court may not, however, consider any evidence which was not before the ALJ for purposes of substantial evidence review. Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). Furthermore, the court is under no obligation to scour the record for errors not identified by the claimant, Howington v. Astrue, No. 2:08-CV-189, 2009 WL 2579620, at *6 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 18, 2009) (stating that assignments of error not made by claimant were waived), and arguments not raised and supported in more than a perfunctory manner may be deemed waived, Woods v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:08-CV-651, 2009 WL ...

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