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Bell v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

August 7, 2019





         This is 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 (“SSI”), as provided under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 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.

         For the 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 be AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on November 13, 2015, [1] 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.

         On 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 416.969(a)).
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)).

TR 23-30.

         On May 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.


         The 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.

         III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW A. Standard of Review

          This 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).

         “Substantial 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 (1938).

         The 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).

         In 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).

         B. Proceedings At The Administrative Level

         The 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).

         At the 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 denied.
(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 disabled.
(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[2] 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 Cir. 1990).

         The 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. 1987).

         In 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).

         C. 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.

         Sentence 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 rehearing.

42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         “In 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).

         1. ALJ's Weighing of the Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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 ...

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