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Valle v. Saul

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

September 18, 2019

FRANCES M. VALLE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBRA C. POPLIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case is before the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the consent of the parties [Doc. 21]. Now before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 22 & 23] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 24 & 25]. Frances Mary Valle (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”), the final decision of Defendant Andrew M. Saul (“the Commissioner”). For the reasons that follow, the Court will DENY Plaintiff’s motion and GRANT the Commissioner’s motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On September 27, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging disability beginning on July 1, 2011. [Tr. 163–66]. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 112–13]. A hearing was held on January 16, 2014 before ALJ John Dowling. [Tr. 59–90]. On February 10, 2014, ALJ Dowling found that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Tr. 42–53]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on February 2, 2015. [Tr. 1–6].

         After exhausting her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on August 28, 2015, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. See [Doc. 1] in Valle v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 3:15-cv-388-PLR-HBG; see also [Tr. 913–18]. On August 30, 2016, the Court accepted Magistrate Judge Guyton’s report and recommendation, and remanded Plaintiff’s case with instructions to further consider the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, Nguyet-Anh (Theresa) Tran, M.D., and for a new evaluation of Plaintiff’s RFC. See Valle v. Colvin, No. 3:15-CV-388-PLR-HBG, 2016 WL 4534875, at *4–5 (E.D. Tenn. July 27, 2016), report and recommendation adopted by, 2016 WL 4536877 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 30, 2016).

         On November 10, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff’s case to ALJ Mary Ellis Richardson for further proceedings consistent with this Court’s Order. [Tr. 909–12].[2] A hearing was held before ALJ Richardson on March 1, 2017. [Tr. 810–40]. On May 23, 2017, ALJ Richardson issued a partially favorable decision, and found Plaintiff to be disabled beginning April 9, 2014-but not prior to that date. [Tr. 779–97]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on March 15, 2018 [Tr. 764–66], and she subsequently filed a Complaint with this Court on April 4, 2018 [Doc. 1]. The parties have filed competing dispositive motions, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS

         In her May 23, 2017 disability decision, ALJ Richardson made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
3. Since the alleged onset date of disability, July 1, 2011, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and anxiety (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. Since the alleged onset date of disability, July 1, 2011, the claimant has not had 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that prior to April 9, 2014, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant could occasionally climb ramps or stairs. The claimant could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. The claimant could occasionally reach in all directions with both upper extremities; could frequently handle, finger, and feel with bilateral upper extremities. The claimant should avoid all exposure to workplace hazards, such as proximity to moving, mechanical parts or working in high, exposed places. The claimant was able to perform simple and detailed tasks.
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that beginning on April 9, 2014, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant could occasionally climb ramps or stairs. The claimant could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. The claimant could occasionally reach in all directions with both upper extremities; could frequently handle, finger, and feel with bilateral upper extremities. The claimant should avoid all exposure to workplace hazards such as exposure to moving, mechanical parts or working in high, exposed places. The claimant is able to perform simple and detailed tasks. The claimant would require hourly breaks throughout the workday.
7. Since July 1, 2011, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
8. Prior to the established disability onset date of April 9, 2014, the claimant was a “younger individual age 45-49”. On December 16, 2015, the claimant turned fifty years of age and entered the category of “closely approaching advanced age” (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
10. Prior to April 9, 2014, 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 transferable job skills. Beginning on April 9, 2014, the claimant has not been able to transfer job skills to other occupations (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
11. Prior to April 9, 2014, 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 404.1569a, 416.969, and 416.969a).
12. Beginning on April 9, 2014, considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569a, 416.969, and 416.969a)
13. The claimant was not disabled prior to April 9, 2014, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

[Tr. 782–96].

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing the Commissioner’s determination of whether an individual is disabled pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court is limited to determining whether the ALJ’s decision was reached through application of the correct legal standards and in accordance with the procedure mandated by the regulations and rulings promulgated by the Commissioner, and whether the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence. Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); Wilson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). It is immaterial whether the record may also possess substantial evidence to support a different conclusion from that reached by the ALJ, or whether the reviewing judge may have decided the case differently. Crisp v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 790 F.2d 450, 453 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The substantial evidence standard is intended to create a “‘zone of choice’ within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th ...


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