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Eppinger v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 15, 2019




         Plaintiff Tamesha Eppinger (“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 her disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Each party has moved for judgment [Docs. 19 & 25] and filed supporting briefs [Docs. 20 & 26]. This matter is now ripe. For the reasons stated below: (1) Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [Doc. 19] will be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 25] will be GRANTED; and the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.


         According to the administrative record [Doc. 12 (“Tr.”)], Plaintiff filed her application for DIB and SSI on May 24, 2016, alleging disability beginning May 1, 2016. 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 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 8, 2017. On March 2, 2018, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from the alleged onset of disability date through the date of 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.


         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born on January 6, 1985, making her as a “younger individual” on the alleged onset date. She has a ninth-grade education, and is able to communicate in English. She has past relevant work as a packer and a poultry processor. Also, she previously worked as a babysitter/child care provider, and as a hair braider, but not to the extent required to qualify as past relevant work for social security disability purposes.

         B. Medical Records

         In her Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to severe depression, a learning disorder, nerve issues, and anxiety (Tr. 214). While there is no need to summarize the medical records herein, the relevant records have been reviewed and will be discussed below as necessary.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ on November 8, 2017, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. The Court has carefully reviewed the transcript of the testimony from the hearing (Tr. 38-57).


         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 that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2016, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: schizoaffective disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder without agoraphobia. The ALJ also found Plaintiff had other conditions which were medically determinable but not severe, including obesity, hypertension, remote congestive heart failure, and substance abuse disorder; as well as alleged conditions which were not medically determinable, including schizophrenia/paranoia with hallucinations, a learning disorder, and an intellectual disorder.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairment 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 a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the following nonexertional limitations:

• She can understand, remember, carry out, and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace with customary breaks, but only for ...

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