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Holtman v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

SCOTT HOLTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Aleta A. Trauger Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Alistair E. Newbern United States Magistrate Judge.

         To The Honorable Aleta A. Trauger, District Judge.

         This case was referred to the Magistrate Judge to dispose or recommend disposition of pretrial motions under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). (Doc. No. 4.) Now pending in this Social Security appeal is Plaintiff Scott Holtman's motion for judgment on the administrative record. (Doc. No. 12.) The Commissioner of Social Security responded in opposition (Doc. No. 14), and Holtman filed a reply (Doc. No. 15). Having considered those filings and the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. No. 8), and for the reasons given below, the Magistrate Judge will recommend that Holtman's motion for judgment be denied and that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         I. Introduction

         Holtman filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on July 8, 2016, at fifty-one years old. (AR 37, 243.) Holtman alleged that, since September 22, 2006, he has been disabled as the result of severe and recurrent major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, migraines, hyponatremia, hypertension, sinusitis/allergies, and sleep apnea. (AR 243, 256.) After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Holtman requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (AR 159.) Holtman was represented by counsel at the February 5, 2018 hearing, at which he and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (AR 37.)

         In an April 4, 2018 opinion, the ALJ found that Holtman was not disabled and denied his claim. (AR 37-47.) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ made the following enumerated findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2009.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of September 22, 2006 through his date last insured of December 31, 2009 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder (MDD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance addiction disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: limited to performing only simple, routine tasks; limited to no contact with the general public, only occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors; and able to adapt to only gradual, infrequent workplace changes.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on December 14, 1964 and was 45 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. 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 had transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
11. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from September 22, 2006, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2009, the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(AR 39-46.)

         The Appeals Council denied Holtman's request for review on August 9, 2018, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1.) Holtman timely filed this action on September 7, 2018 (Doc. No. 1), seeking judgment on the administrative record (Doc. No. 12). The Commissioner responded in opposition (Doc. No. 14), and Holtman filed a reply (Doc. No. 15). Holtman raises two arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred by declining to give Dr. McFerrin's opinions controlling weight and by failing to provide good reasons for the little weight accorded to them; and (2) that the Commissioner did not carry his burden of proving there are enough jobs in the national economy to enable Holtman to make a successful employment transition. (Doc. No. 13.)

         II. Review of the Record

         The parties and the ALJ have thoroughly summarized and discussed the medical and testimonial evidence of the administrative record. Accordingly, the Court will only discuss those matters to the extent necessary to analyze the parties' arguments.

         III. Legal Standard

         A. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act authorizes the Court to review “any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing” and “enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing [that decision], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court reviews the final decision of the Commissioner to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016). “Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (alteration in original) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but “more than a mere scintilla” and means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.; see also Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 722 (6th Cir. 2014) (same). When substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, that decision must stand even if the record could also support a contrary conclusion. See Hernandez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 644 Fed.Appx. 468, 473 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). This Court may not “try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.” Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). However, the substantial-evidence standard does not condone “a selective reading of the record” and instead requires the ALJ to have considered evidence that “‘fairly detracts'” from her decision. Brooks v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 Fed.Appx. 636, 641 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)).

         The Court also reviews the ALJ's decision for procedural fairness, determining whether the ALJ properly followed the law. Miller, 811 F.3d at 833. “The Social Security Administration has established rules for how an ALJ must evaluate a disability claim and has made promises to disability applicants as to how their claims and medical evidence will be reviewed.” Gentry, 741 F.3d at 723. Failure to follow agency rules and regulations therefore “‘denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record.'” Id. (quoting Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011)). “The failure to comply with the agency's rules warrants a remand unless it is harmless error.” Id. at 723 (citing Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 545-46 (6th Cir. 2004)).

         B. Administrative Evaluation of Disability Claims

         Title II is an insurance program that “‘provides old-age, survivor, and disability benefits to insured individuals irrespective of financial need.'” Furlo v. Colvin, No. 14-cv-14392, 2016 WL 146482, at *8 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 13, 2016) (quoting Bowen v. Galbreath, 485 U.S. 74, 75 (1988)). To receive DIB, Holtman must establish that he had a “disability, ” which means an “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[, ]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), on or prior to his last insured date, Manson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 12-11473, 2013 WL 3456960, at *2 n.1 (E.D. Mich. July 9, 2013) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(c) and 20 C.F.R. § 404.130). Therefore, the relevant period of analysis for Holtman's claim is September 22, 2006, his alleged onset date, through December 31, 2009, his date last insured. (AR 38.)

         ALJs use a five-step analysis to resolve the question of disability:

At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity; if the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. [20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).] At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe.” Id. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step three, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listings, then the ALJ will find the claimant disabled. Id. Otherwise, the ALJ will proceed to the fourth step, where the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity and past work. Id. If the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work at step five. Id. If the claimant cannot make the adjustment, the ALJ will find the claimant disabled. Id.

Miller, 811 F.3d at 835 n.6. Holtman bears the burden through step four, but, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to “identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate [Holtman's] residual functional capacity [RFC] and vocational profile.”[2] Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 652 F.3d 646, 651 (6th Cir. 2011). The agency may carry its burden at step five by relying on the medical vocational guidelines, also known as “the grid.” Anderson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 406 Fed.Appx. 32, 35 (6th Cir. 2010) (explaining that the grid is designed to simplify decision-making by directing a finding of disabled or not disabled where certain common patterns of vocational factors are present). However, the agency may also carry its burden using VE testimony. Id.; see also Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 616 (6th Cir. 2003) (explaining that a VE will be able to analyze an individual's particular RFC to “determine the size of the remaining occupational base, cite specific jobs within the individual's [RFC], and provide a statement of the incidence of those jobs in the region of the individual's residence or in several regions of the country”).

         IV. Analysis

         Holtman raises two issues on appeal. First, he argues that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by failing to give Dr. McFerrin's opinions controlling weight and failing to give good reasons for the little weight she did accord them. Second, Holtman argues that the Commissioner did not carry his burden at step five of proving that there are enough jobs in the national economy to enable Holtman to make a successful employment transition. Critical to reviewing the ALJ's decision is the fact that, although Holtman applied for benefits in 2016, his application addresses only the time period from September 22, 2006, to December 31, 2009. Limited to that window, the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence and neither of Holtman's arguments warrants reversal.

         A. Dr. McFerrin's Opinions and the ...


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