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Vallon v. Saul

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

September 20, 2019

NORMA L. VALLON, 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 Judgment on the Pleadings and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 22 & 23] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 24 & 25]. Norma L. Vallon (“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 GRANT IN PART Plaintiff’s motion and DENY the Commissioner’s motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 28, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and disabled widow’s benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging disability beginning on May 25, 2013. [Tr. 19, 191–93]. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 158]. A hearing was held on October 7, 2015. [Tr. 32–96]. On November 27, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Tr. 19–28]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on November 7, 2016 [Tr. 1–6], making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on December 22, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. [Doc. 1]. On July 10, 2017, the Court issued a show cause order for Plaintiff’s failure to show proof of service [Doc. 6], and on July 18, 2017, Magistrate Judge Shirley issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that Plaintiff’s Complaint be dismissed without prejudice [Doc. 7]. Plaintiff subsequently submitted proof of service and an objection to the Report and Recommendation [Docs. 8–9], and the Court rejected the Report and Recommendation and ordered the Commissioner to respond the Complaint [Doc. 11]. The parties have filed competing dispositive motions, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
2. It was previously found that the claimant is the unmarried widow of the deceased insured worker and has attained the age of 50. The claimant met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow’s benefits set forth in section 202(e) of the Social Security Act.
3. The prescribed period ended on March 31, 2015.
4. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 25, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
5. The claimant has the following severe impairments: arthritis, lymphedema, affective disorders, and personality disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
6. 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
7. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and frequently climb ramps and stairs. Work is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements; involving only simple work-related decisions; and few, if any, workplace changes. She could have occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. There should be no complex written or oral communication.
8. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a fast food worker or cleaner. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities by the claimant’s residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565).
9. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 25, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f)).

[Tr. 21–28].

         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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