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Lancaster v. Saul

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

September 27, 2019

MARK S. LANCASTER, 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. 20]. Now before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 21 & 22] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 23 & 24]. Mark S. Lancaster (“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 January 13, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., alleging disability beginning on August 8, 2011. [Tr. 10, 59, 161]. After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 104–06]. A hearing was held on March 7, 2017. [Tr. 24–58]. On September 19, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Tr. 10–19]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on March 6, 2018 [Tr. 1–6], making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on April 4, 2018, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. [Doc. 1]. 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 13, 2015, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe, without psychotic features (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, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except that the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple and low-level detailed instructions and tasks; could never have contact with the public, and occasionally have contact with co-workers, and supervisors in an environment where workplace changes are occasionally and gradually introduced.
5. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as an electrician’s helper (Dictionary of Occupational Titles entry 824.261-022, medium, semiskilled, SVP 3). This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant’s residual functional capacity (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since January 13, 2015, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(f)).

         [Tr. 12–18].

         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 Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted).

         On review, the plaintiff “bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec’y. of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).

         IV. DISABILITY ELIGIBILITY

         “Disability” is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant will only be considered disabled:

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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Disability is evaluated pursuant to a five-step analysis summarized as follows:

1. If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
2. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be ...

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