United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
JEFFERY S. FRENSLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
a civil action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to
obtain judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff
Supplemental Security Insurance (“SSIâ), as provided
under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (âthe Actâ), as
amended. The case is currently pending on Plaintiff's
Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record. Docket No.
17. Plaintiff has filed an accompanying Memorandum of Law.
Docket No. 18. Defendant has filed a Response, arguing that
the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial
evidence and should be affirmed. Docket No. 19. Plaintiff has
filed a Reply. Docket No. 20.
reasons stated below, the undersigned recommends that
Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative
Record be DENIED, and that the decision of the Commissioner
filed his application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on November 13, 2015,  alleging that he
had been disabled since January 1, 2011, due to “Carpal
Tunnel on Both Hands, ” “Numbness in Hands and
Wrists, ” “Pain in Back and Neck, ”
“Knee Pain, ” “Can't Read or Write,
” “Stomach Issues, ” “Spastic Colon,
” and “COPD.” See, e.g.,
Docket No. 15, Attachment (“TR”), pp. 176-84,
195. Plaintiff's application was denied both initially
(TR 94) and upon reconsideration (TR 112). Plaintiff
subsequently requested (TR 141-43) and received (TR 60-93) a
hearing. Plaintiff's hearing was conducted on August 21,
2017, by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Renee
S. Andrews-Turner. TR 60. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert,
Bobby Hammond, appeared and testified. Id.
April 26, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to
Plaintiff, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act and Regulations. TR 18-30.
Specifically, the ALJ made the following findings of fact:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 15, 2015, the application date (20 CFR
416.971 et seq.) (3D-6D).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (COPD), status post bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome
release, psoriatic arthritis, mood disorder, and mild
intellectual disability (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. 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 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. 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 416.967(b) except lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or
walking for 6 hours; sitting for 6 hours; occasionally
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb; frequently
handle, finger, push, and pull with bilateral upper
extremities; should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration;
should avoid even moderate exposure to extreme cold; can
understand, remember and carry out simple instructions;
occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and
supervisors; can adapt to gradual changes in the workplace.
5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work
(20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on December 9, 1971 and was 43 years
old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on
the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is
able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
8. Transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination of disability because using the
Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding
that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or
not the claimant has transferrable job skills (See SSR 82-41
and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 416.969 and
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, since October 15, 2015, the date
the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)).
7, 2018, Plaintiff timely filed a request for review of the
hearing decision. TR 172. On September 25, 2018, the Appeals
Council issued a letter declining to review the case (TR
5-7), thereby rendering the decision of the ALJ the final
decision of the Commissioner. This civil action was
thereafter timely filed, and the Court has jurisdiction. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Commissioner's findings are
supported by substantial evidence, based upon the record as a
whole, then these findings are conclusive. Id.
REVIEW OF THE RECORD
parties and the ALJ have summarized and discussed the medical
and testimonial evidence of record. Accordingly, the Court
will discuss those matters only to the extent necessary to
analyze the parties' arguments.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW A. Standard of Review
Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is
limited to the record made in the administrative hearing
process. Jones v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). The purpose
of this review is to determine: (1) whether substantial
evidence exists in the record to support the
Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether any legal errors
were committed in the process of reaching that decision.
Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986).
evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the
conclusion.” Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
203 F.3d 388, 389 (6th Cir. 1999), citing Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “Substantial
evidence” has been further quantified as “more
than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a
preponderance.” Bell v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996), citing
Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229
reviewing court does not substitute its findings of fact for
those of the Commissioner if substantial evidence supports
the Commissioner's findings and inferences. Garner v.
Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). In fact,
even if the evidence could also support a different
conclusion, the decision of the ALJ must stand if substantial
evidence supports the conclusion reached. Her, 203
F.3d at 389, citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270,
273 (6th Cir. 1997). If the Commissioner did not consider the
record as a whole, however, the Commissioner's conclusion
is undermined. Hurst v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 753 F.2d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 1985), citing
Allen v. Califano, 613 F.2d 139, 145 (6th Cir. 1980).
reviewing the decisions of the Commissioner, courts look to
four types of evidence: (1) objective medical findings
regarding Plaintiff's condition; (2) diagnoses and
opinions of medical experts; (3) subjective evidence of
Plaintiff's condition; and (4) Plaintiff's age,
education, and work experience. Miracle v.
Celebrezze, 351 F.2d 361, 374 (6th Cir. 1965).
Proceedings At The Administrative Level
claimant carries the ultimate burden to establish an
entitlement to benefits by proving his or her
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Substantial gainful
activity” not only includes previous work performed by
Plaintiff, but also, considering Plaintiff's age,
education, and work experience, any other relevant work that
exists in the national economy in significant numbers
regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area
in which Plaintiff lives, or whether a specific job vacancy
exists, or whether Plaintiff would be hired if he or she
applied. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
administrative level of review, the claimant's case is
considered under a five-step sequential evaluation process
summarized as follows:
(1) If the claimant is working and the work constitutes
substantial gainful activity, benefits are automatically
(2) If the claimant is not found to have an impairment which
significantly limits his or her ability to work (a
“severe” impairment), then he or she is not
(3) If the claimant is not working and has a severe
impairment, it must be determined whether he or she suffers
from one of the “listed”
impairments or its equivalent. If a listing is met or
equaled, benefits are owing without further inquiry.
(4) If the claimant does not suffer from any listing-level
impairments, it must be determined whether the claimant can
return to the job he or she previously held in light of his
or her residual functional capacity (e.g., what the claimant
can still do despite his or her limitations). By showing a
medical condition that prevents him or her from returning to
such past relevant work, the claimant establishes a prima
facie case of disability.
(5) The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to establish
the claimant's ability to work by proving the existence
of a significant number of jobs in the national economy which
the claimant could perform, given his or her age, experience,
education, and residual functional capacity.
See, e.g., 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
See also Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th
Commissioner's burden at the fifth step of the evaluation
process can be satisfied by relying on the medical-vocational
guidelines, otherwise known as “the grid, ” but
only if the claimant is not significantly limited by a
nonexertional impairment, and then only when the
claimant's characteristics identically match the
characteristics of the applicable grid rule. Moon,
923 F.2d at 1181; 20 CFR § 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Rule
200.00(e)(1), (2). See also Damron v. Sec'y of Health
& Human Servs., 778 F.2d 279, 281-82 (6th Cir.
1985). Otherwise, the grid cannot be used to direct a
conclusion, but only as a guide to the disability
determination. Id. In such cases where the grid does
not direct a conclusion as to the claimant's disability,
the Commissioner must rebut the claimant's prima facie
case by coming forward with particularized proof of the
claimant's individual vocational qualifications to
perform specific jobs, which is typically obtained through
vocational expert testimony. See Varley v. Sec'y of
Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir.
determining residual functional capacity for purposes of the
analysis required at stages four and five above, the
Commissioner is required to consider the combined effect of
all the claimant's impairments: mental and physical,
exertional and nonexertional, severe and nonsevere.
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B).
Plaintiff's Statement of Errors
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) improperly analyzed the
opinion of the State agency psychological examiner; (2)
failed to properly evaluate whether Plaintiff's
intellectual disability met or equaled a Listing; and (3)
failed to perform a proper credibility analysis. Docket No.
18. Accordingly, Plaintiff maintains that, pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), the Commissioner's decision should
be reversed, or in the alternative, remanded. Id.
four of § 405(g) states as follows:
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
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
cases where there is an adequate record, the Secretary's
decision denying benefits can be reversed and benefits
awarded if the decision is clearly erroneous, proof of
disability is overwhelming, or proof of disability is strong
and evidence to the contrary is lacking.”
Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 973 (6th
Cir. 1985). Furthermore, a court can reverse the decision and
immediately award benefits if all essential factual issues
have been resolved and the record adequately establishes a
plaintiff's entitlement to benefits. Faucher v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 17 F.3d 171, 176
(6th Cir. 1994). See also Newkirk v. Shalala, 25
F.3d 316, 318 (6th Cir. 1994).
ALJ's Weighing of the Opinion Evidence
first contends that the ALJ failed to properly analyze the
opinion of Larry Parker, PhD, the State agency psychological
examiner. Docket No. 18, p. 6, citing TR 302-18. In
so doing, Plaintiff recounts Dr. Palmer's testing
observations and findings, and further recounts Dr.
Palmer's opinions that Plaintiff: (1) “had severe
limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, and
pace”; (2) “had moderate limitations in
understanding, remembering, social interaction, and
adaptability”; (3) had a diagnosis of “mood
disorder due to general medical condition, intellectual
disability mild, and partner relational problem”; and
(4) “would not be able to manage his own funds without
assistance.” Id. at 7-9, citing TR
314-15. Plaintiff argues that SSR 85-15 “defines the
basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled
work to include the abilities on a sustained basis to
understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; to
respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual
work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work
setting.” Id. at 10. Plaintiff argues that Dr.
Palmer's opinion contains “far greater, and more
detailed limitations than are included in the ALJ's RFC
finding, ” and that, “[b]ased on the authority
just described with respect to the ‘basic mental
demands of work, '” “Dr. Palmer's opinion
met Plaintiff's burden to come forward with evidence
establishing that he is ‘disabled' pursuant to the
Agency's definition of that term.” Id.
also essentially argues that because the ALJ failed to
properly analyze Dr. Palmer's opinion, the ALJ's RFC
determination was flawed, as were the hypothetical questions
posed to the VE, such that the ALJ could not rely upon the
testimony of the VE to establish a significant number of jobs
in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Id. at 10-11. Plaintiff further contends that the
ALJ's decision-making process was erroneous because the
ALJ: (1) in her RFC finding “does not describe with
specificity all the practical effects of
all the claimant's demonstrated
impairments” (Id. at 10) (emphasis original);
(2) “was required by law to consider but did not
acknowledge or discuss at all” the factors in 20 CFR
416.927(c) (Id. at 11-12); and (3) failed to give
Dr. Palmer's ...