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Brooks-Harris v. Saul

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

July 16, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge with the consent of the parties and by order of reference [Doc. 12] for disposition and entry of a final judgment. Plaintiff's Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) application under the Social Security Act, Title II, was denied after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. This action is for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision per 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Each party has filed a dispositive motion [Docs. 13 & 15] and supporting memorandum [Docs. 14 & 16].


         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 Administrative Law Judge (“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 credibility issues. 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).

         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” that is available in the regional or national economies. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a).

         A five-step sequential evaluation applies 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 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). The Court may consider any evidence in the record regardless of whether it was cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d. 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001).


         Cathy Angeline Brooks-Harris (“Brooks-Harris”) has twice applied for Title II DIB benefits. Her first application was submitted in January 2013 (Doc. 6, Transcript p. 53) (reference to “Tr” and the page denote the administrative record). She alleged an onset date of August 26, 2012 (Id.). On this application, the ALJ found Brooks-Harris was not disabled from the onset date through the date of his decision on July 18, 2014 (Tr. 53). She unsuccessfully appealed the decision to this Court. See Brooks-Harris v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2:15-CV-252 (E.D. Tenn. July 28, 2016)..

         While her first appeal to this Court was pending, Brooks-Harris filed her second application on August 11, 2015, alleging disability due to the same general conditions (Tr.15). She alleged an onset date of July 19, 2014. This claim was initially denied in November 2015 and upon reconsideration in March 2016 (Id.). An ALJ conducted a hearing on October 17, 2017 (Id.). Brooks-Harris and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified (Tr. 32-49). The ALJ found Brooks-Harris not disabled on December 27, 2017 (Tr. 15). The decision is before this Court for review.

         The ALJ concluded Brooks-Harris, a claimant with a high school education who was closely approaching advanced age, met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 2014 (Tr. 17). He found her obesity, residuals of breast cancer treatment, residuals of right hand and left wrist fractures, and cervicalgia were severe but determined her mental conditions were not (Id.). The ALJ found Brooks-Harris does not have an impairment or combination of ...

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